Can employers dismiss employees who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine?

  • David Harris
  • Friday, January 22nd, 2021

The COVID-19 vaccine will soon be available to the entire UK population but not everyone wants to be vaccinated. 

Employers should consider very carefully how they will approach a vaccination policy for their employees.

The COVID-19 vaccination programme in the UK is now well underway.  With the vaccine being offered first to the most vulnerable groups as well as frontline workers in hospitals and care homes, it should not take that long before it becomes available to the entire adult population.  This introduces some important considerations regarding the position that employers should take in relation to the vaccine.

Probably one of the first questions that most employers will be asking is when their employees can get vaccinated.  The UK Government plans to vaccinate all people aged over 70 by the middle of February, followed by everyone older than 50 by the end of April.  After that, the programme will be expanded to ensure that the rest of the adult population receives an opportunity to be vaccinated by autumn.  

The questions that follow from that are more challenging.  Can employers insist that their employees accept the offer of being vaccinated?  What options do employees have if they refuse the COVID-19 vaccination? 

The answers would depend largely on whether or not it would be considered reasonable to ask employees to be vaccinated, given the context in which the business operates.  There is understandably a massive difference between asking hospital workers to be vaccinated as opposed to placing that requirement on a person who works remotely at home.   

Employers can institute a non-contractual policy of asking employees to be vaccinated, while at the same time focusing on all the benefits of accepting the vaccine.  However, going beyond merely asking could expose employers to several risks in relation to employment law.    

These risks could be considerable if they infringe on any of the protected characteristics that are associated with the Equality Act 2010.  An employee who refuses the vaccine on the basis of religious or philosophical belief could have grounds for claiming protection under this act.  At the end of last year, the Vatican gave permission for Catholics to be vaccinated, but other religions may not permit their followers to accept the vaccine.  There could also be a valid medical condition like pregnancy or a severe allergy that might prevent someone from being vaccinated. 

Despite these difficulties, if after carrying out a risk assessment, it is deemed that a company’s request for employees to be vaccinated is a reasonable way to minimise the risk, employers could potentially be justified in dismissing employees who refuse to accept the vaccine.  It is however crucial that lawful dismissal procedures are adhered to.  This would include the consideration of viable alternatives like working from home before the final decision is made regarding dismissal.  Previous case law cannot be referred to and so employers would need to consider each case individually.

What seems at face value, like a reasonable request to ensure health and safety, is actually full of complexity when it comes to issues surrounding acceptance of the vaccine.  Rather than confronting them, it would be preferable to educate and persuade employees, while at the same time, examining all the available options.

In complicated situations of this nature, it would also be essential to seek professional legal advice.  For more information, you can give us a call on 0118 208 2000 or send an email to info@dphlegal.com