Vaccinations: Why employers need to consider religion and belief

82-year-old Brian Pinker is the first to receive the Oxford AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
Steve Parsons/PA Wire/PA Images

Many aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic divide opinion in the workforce, and vaccines are a hot topic at the moment. Esther Langdon looks at why managers need to consider religious reasons for employees’ views and to handle discussions carefully.

There was positive news this week as 82-year-old Brian Pinker, a dialysis patient, was the first to receive the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine against coronavirus since its approval. With cases reaching a new peak over the Christmas period and beyond, it’s clear that tensions over lockdowns and closures will continue to manifest themselves in the workplace (both physical and virtual) well into 2021.

Vaccination will of course be a hot topic. Employers of all sizes should recognise that, within their workforces, there are likely to be a wide range of reactions to the possibility of vaccination.

Covid-19 has broken down many boundaries in society and has showed us how interconnected we all are. This has meant that vaccination isn’t seen as just a personal issue, but as a public health one and one where it can be hard for people to respect views different from their own.

Many are distrustful of the vaccine and worry that the speed of its development should give pause for thought. Others see it as the panacea which will get us back to normal.

Emotions are frayed and running high after months of trauma, and social media is buzzing with the latest information and misinformation.

Difficult conversations

It can be tempting for employers to shy away from issues which are inherently personal and both politically and emotionally loaded. However, this will not be the best way to take the workforce forward as the country adapts to the rollout of the vaccines.

Far better to recognise that now is the time to lead and to mediate on the difficult conversations, making space for all opinions, and to embed this as part of the wider employee wellbeing and health and safety strategy.

While the UK is not heading in the direction of mandatory vaccination, vaccination is being actively encouraged by the government and by the Prime Minister himself.

This is the official public health advice, and this can provide a legitimate framework for employers to start conversations – while allowing for a range of reactions and opinions to that advice.

Inform employees

Think of the analogy of the annual flu jab, where many employers facilitate their employees getting the jab, while not overstepping boundaries or disrespecting individual choices.

Provided it is done carefully, those employers who wish to can provide their employees with the facts about the vaccines, and play their part in enabling employees to interact with the NHS on this issue, and come to their own conclusion.

As always in navigating difficult workplace conversations, confidence and an understanding of the legal framework is important in making these conversations constructive.

As part of this, employers should be alive to the fact that the reasons for mistrusting the public health pro-vaccination advice, or for decisions not to be vaccinated, are varied and personal.

These can include religious reasons, and may not be straightforward. The issue here is not that any particular religion fundamentally opposes vaccination, but more that many groups and individuals raise religious justifications for vaccine refusal.

Legal protections

The main area of protection here under UK law is under the Equality Act 2010, which makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone because of religion or belief. The way this protection works is to look at the individual’s religion or belief in depth – it is not a question of categorising it neatly into a particular, named religion or its recognised practices and rules.

Rather, an employment tribunal will approach the task very much dependent on the facts of the case in hand, and can subject the belief in question to a sometimes startling degree of scrutiny, looking at how the belief fits into and affects the day to day life of the individual.

Certain criteria must be met before a religion or belief has the protection of the Equality Act, including that it must be genuinely held, that it must be a belief rather than an opinion or point of view and that it must be about a weighty and substantial aspect of human life.

The claimant must also show that the belief has cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance, and it must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, compatible with human dignity and not in conflict with the rights of others. There is certainly scope for a wide range of views on vaccination to fall within this protection, but, equally, not all any views will qualify.

The complex analysis required here shows how unhelpful are sweeping and potentially pejorative terms – on both sides of any debate. Sweeping labels of pro-vaxxers and anti-vaxxers aren’t going to help any consideration of whether the Equality Act is engaged.

Instead, employers need to be alive to the possibility of a variety of genuinely held beliefs, and the possibility that they may meet the various hurdles to qualify for protection under the Equality Act.

In a febrile environment where people are anxious about their jobs and their futures, it may be that we see a rise in discrimination and harassment complaints, and employers should be conscious of this.

Of course, for such claims to be successful, there needs to be both a detriment and a causative connection to the religion or belief. Again, the cases show that these areas will come under a lot of scrutiny before a tribunal is satisfied that there was cause and effect.

All of which serves to underline that thinking through how to handle the inevitable 2021 conversations about vaccination both confidently and respectfully can and should pay dividends for employers.

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