Potential vaccine refusals may present a new dilemma for companies

Health and Safety Act allows for workers to be removed if they are regarded as a threat to other people
Potential vaccine refusals may present a new dilemma for companies

Extended sick leave among employees constitutes real disruption and cost.

The Government’s decision to vaccinate against Covid-19 based on age rather than on occupation led to outrage, most obviously within the teaching profession.

The implicit assumption is that no-one would refuse the vaccine as soon as it is offered.

Yet, the vaccine ambition on display is not universal. There are those in the population who may choose to refuse the vaccine, perhaps on the grounds of concern over adverse side-effects or possibly for religious reasons.

That presents a real dilemma, not only for the individuals concerned but for their employers as well. 

What is an employer to do if a member of the workforce decides not to be vaccinated?

It is one of the less attractive aspects of Irish attitudes to the workplace that we tend to focus first on what employment law demands, rather than on what is best and fairest when complying within the law.

Everyone may have a right to refuse a vaccine, but the HSE chief executive Paul Reid has pointed out that the Health and Safety Act allows for workers to be removed if they are regarded as a threat to other people.

The position of healthcare workers is a particular case in point, but what of workers whose roles do not routinely expose them to colleagues, customers or clients who may already be ill or medically vulnerable?

The Vatican is not widely regarded as a bastion of employment equality or freedom of choice and it announced a “no jab-no job” policy in early February.

There was outcry over the suggestion that a Vatican worker refusing to take the vaccine could lead to their dismissal. The policy was reversed within a fortnight.

Common to most of the vaccination debates is the individual’s right to make private decisions about managing their own health. 

It is no bad thing that we moved on from how things were done in the past.

At the end of the 19th century, the terror disease was not Covid-19 but smallpox. 

In the US, the authorities would routinely check for vaccination marks on people’s arms, to confirm their immunity before say being allowed to travel. Now we discuss the rights and wrongs of vaccine passports, not vaccine scarring.

There is less discussion about the legitimate expectations of employers for whom extended sick leave among employees constitutes real disruption and cost.

There is, at present, no statutory entitlement to sick pay from an employer in this country. A government consultation on whether or not employers should pay their employees who are absent due to illness has just concluded. Its findings are all the more relevant because without a Covid-19 vaccination, an employee is at a higher risk of being absent from work — perhaps for an extended period due to an incurable disease.

There is also evidence that even after recovering from Covid-19, there is a greater incidence of mental health and neurological problems.

The consultation responses on statutory sick pay, from both employers and employees alike, were broadly in favour of sick pay schemes being introduced.

Nevertheless, smaller employers have significant reservations about the affordability of sick pay schemes. The Small Firms Association suggested that employers with less than 50 employees should receive support from government if comprehensive sick pay schemes were to become mandatory.

It is legitimate, though in my view misguided, for people to have reservations about accepting a Covid-19 vaccination. Equally however, it is legitimate for employers to expect that any employee refusing a vaccination should consider the impact of their decision both on their employers and on their colleagues at work.

The right to refuse a vaccine does not come without its own responsibilities.

Brian Keegan is director of public policy at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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