Can you lose your job if you don’t take the COVID-19 vaccine?

Worried about the COVID-19 vaccine, and your legal rights to refuse it? Karen Holden, CEO of A City Law Firm explains whether or not you can lose your job if you don’t take it.

With the UK Covid Vaccination programme getting underway it won’t be long before it is rolled out to the wider population and this has led to an influx of questions and debates.

Many people may be concerned about their human rights and whether choices around vaccinations could potentially impact their livelihood. But what are the laws around vaccinations in the workplace and what actions can you take if you are treated unfairly?

What the law says about the COVID-19 vaccine

In England and Wales, the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 gives the government the power to prevent, control and mitigate the spread of an infection. However, this act specifically prevents a person from being forced to undertake medical treatment, i.e. a vaccine. 

As such to date there is no legal power to force a COVID-19 vaccine on the public as a whole and the government has confirmed that they are not planning on making a vaccine mandatory.

Can your employer force you to have the COVID-19 vaccine?

There may be specific workplace grounds to mandate a vaccine as a condition of employment. However, employers must be careful in ensuring it is essential and not just part of COVID safe work arrangements. The bar for this is likely to be very high and limited to healthcare workers and those providing similar services. 

As there is currently no real legal basis to have employees vaccinated, it is advised that employers do not force this.

There are many different and complicated reasons why an employee may not wish to be vaccinated and an employer is opening themselves up to a whole host of litigation if they mandate vaccines. Dismissing an employee for refusing a vaccine may constitute unfair dismissal.

What if your workplace pressures you to take the vaccine and you have a reaction to it? Who would be held liable for forcing this on you?

This is simply unknown at the moment. It is likely that, as long as the vaccine is recommended by the government as best medical practice, then the liability would not fall on the employer. It would fall on the government and drug manufacturers instead. This may be different if your employer has acted unreasonably in pressuring you into taking the vaccine.

Unless the government mandate the vaccine, employers would have to seek a right under common-law contract and have clauses that require the vaccine, therefore offering legal consent but it will be interesting to see how and if these clauses can be challenged or upheld. There will no doubt be challenges of human rights violations so case law will be developed over time in this area.

What if you decide not to get vaccinated and get treated unfairly? 

An employer does have a legal health and safety obligation to all staff so it may be possible to give extended ‘social interaction’ rights to those who have been vaccinated.

It may also be possible to require those who are not vaccinated to undertake different roles or become home-based. But each situation will differ, and it is something that must be carefully thought out from a legal standpoint. They should be taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of all employees. 

If you are treated less favourably you could make a grievance or discrimination claim (depending on the situation). For instance, if you are refraining from taking the vaccine due to a disability or religious reasons, these could be possible grounds to file charges against. 

However, if your employer reasonably mandates a vaccination (i.e. hospital staff), then failure to comply with that reasonable request may result in dismissal. This may become the case in sectors where social distancing and working from home are not readily available. 

Can the COVID-19 vaccine rules change? 

Although there are no rules currently in place in the UK allowing employers to force their staff to take the vaccine – this could potentially change. For instance, in the USA employers are already able to enforce the vaccines in the workplace. Also, with global travel likely to require this too with CEOs of international airlines already arguing the necessity this could impact various jobs.

If the government make it impossible for you to fly or attend public events without having the vaccination, this will assist employers to encourage employees to take the vaccination in order to perform their roles.

However, employers may initially address these issues through less direct means such as denying any paid leave for those unvaccinated if they contract the virus or need to isolate or restricting and reducing benefits. 

Laws are constantly changing to align with current trends and in anticipation of future needs and the protection of society. So, it’s important to stay up to date and follow the government guidelines very closely.

Disclaimer: This is a high-level overview of the legal position surrounding vaccines and in no way constitutes legal advice. If you are unsure about any legal issues surrounding the pandemic, it is essential you seek legal advice.

Karen Holden is CEO of A City Law Firm.

Photo by Dimitri Houtteman