Firms face legal minefield over 'jabs for jobs' controversy

Companies considering insisting new employees must have had the Covid-19 vaccine are being warned of falling victim to discrimination claims.

A number of leading firms in the UK, including the likes of London-based Pimlico Plumbers and care home providers Barchester Healthcare, which has homes in Sevenoaks, Ashford, Sittingbourne, Maidstone and Rochester, have recently said they will reject staff who refuse the jab on non-medical grounds.

They have been joined by care home provider Care UK which runs sites in Whitstable, Ashford, Maidstone and Sevenoaks.

This despite Downing Street declaring such a move as "discriminatory" in a row which has split opinion in Boris Johnson's cabinet.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland recently said he thought it may be legal for firms to insist on new staff getting the jab.

But a Kent law firm warns businesses taking such a step need to tread carefully and warn that the same rules will not be easily applied to existing staff.

Ben Stepney, from Tunbridge Wells and Dartford lawyers Thomson Snell & Passmore, explained: “Organisations may well wish to encourage their employees to be vaccinated, but there is no legal right to force employees to have a vaccination against their will.

The vaccine roll-out has been a huge success - but should employers insist on it?
The vaccine roll-out has been a huge success - but should employers insist on it?

“While the legal risks associated with mandating that new recruits have received their Covid-19 vaccination may be less when compared to existing employees, it still needs serious consideration.

“One of the main concerns is of indirect discrimination claims.

"For example making it a blanket policy or contract condition that every staff member or new recruit has to be vaccinated could indirectly discriminate against people with certain protected characteristics like a religion that prohibits vaccinations or objects to an ingredient in the vaccine.

"This means that the employer would have to have a robust argument that vaccinations are carried out for a legitimate business reason – for example the health and safety of the work force or its customers or service users – and the insistence on vaccination is a proportionate means of achieving that legitimate business aim.

“The nature of the business, including the degree of contact that employees are expected to have with members of the public, could dictate that taking the vaccine is a 'reasonable instruction' by the employer. The care industry is one example here, where employers could argue that staff refusing to be vaccinated would put vulnerable care home users at risk.

Ben Stepney is from Thomson Snell and Passmore

“If an organisation does issue a ‘reasonable instruction’ for staff to be vaccinated, it is vital that they engage and communicate clearly with all employees about why they are making this a reasonable instruction.

“This is new ground for the vast majority of organisations and it is important that businesses tread carefully and seek expert advice early on.”

However, the situation seems likely to come under intense scrutiny over coming weeks, with the Prime Minister being one of those opposed to firms insisting on the jab amid speculation he may pass a law to prevent companies from doing so.

A Whitehall source was recently quoted by the Sun as saying: “The Prime Minister does not want to see people punished for not having had the jab for possibly legitimate reasons.”

It comes as the government considers how to move forward as the vaccine programme continues to gather pace.

Boris Johnson is believed to oppose the 'jabs for jobs' concept
Boris Johnson is believed to oppose the 'jabs for jobs' concept

Among the ideas being touted are vaccine passports which would allow those who have had the jab to access public places such as pubs and theatres - as well as permitting international travel.

The government is currently considering a raft of possible options which would allow it to fully reopen the nation's economy after months of lockdown and in line with the previously announced roadmap - the first stage of which occurs on Monday when schools reopen.

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