Around the world, we are seeing employers considering the ways in which they can encourage vaccine uptake within their workforce. In this article, we explore some of the creative approaches employers are taking, government guidance around vaccine incentives and some of the legal risks.
What measures are employers in the UK and other countries taking to encourage vaccine uptake?
Employers in countries such as the USA have already started to make the headlines through their efforts to encourage their employees to take up the vaccine. In the USA, some have incentivised vaccine uptake through an increased charge for medical insurance or potential pay rises.
In the UK, the use of vaccine incentives is yet to take off as significantly. However, employers have made headlines by joining forces to publicly commit to encouraging and supporting their employees to take up the vaccine. Ways they are committed to doing this include, time off to attend vaccine appointments, spreading positive messages and advertisements for the vaccine programme within the workplace and offering fully-paid sick leave for any minor side effects after the jab.
What are employers in the UK being encouraged to do?
On the 12 July, the government published guidance as to how and why employers can play a key role in encouraging their employees to get vaccinated. The government makes clear in the guidance that employers have a huge opportunity to ensure the safety of their workforce by encouraging vaccination and this can be done in a number of ways, such as:
- Sharing the facts around the vaccine, so allowing employees to make informed decisions, for example by using and circulating the resources from the government’s employer toolkit which will aid vaccine conversations in the workplace.
- Direct employees to trusted sources of information.
- Share practical guidance on how to book vaccinations.
- Show support for vaccination from senior members of the company.
- Allow employees paid time off to attend their vaccine appointments, as well as paid sick leave in the case of minor vaccine side effects.
What risks should employers be aware of?
Firstly, employers (particularly larger employers) are encouraged to have a vaccination policy in place if offering incentives to employees to get vaccinated (or if mandating it). The policy should explain the reasons for taking this approach and clearly outline the terms and conditions of the incentives offered. Furthermore, the policy would be a good opportunity to outline the best practice for employees to adopt when it comes to vaccination, such as discussing their “status” with colleagues or spreading false information, to reduce any potential conflict within the workplace.
Employers are legally permitted to strongly encourage vaccine uptake and offer incentives to employees. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers are obliged to take reasonable steps to reduce any workplace risks. Through vaccination against COVID-19, an employer may argue this is helping to make the workplace as safe as possible by employees protecting themselves and others.
Having said this, when incentives are being offered to employees to get vaccinated, employers should take into account the risk of discrimination against employees with protected characteristics preventing their vaccination, such as religion, belief or disability – it is unlawful to discriminate against employees with a protected characteristic. However, it may be possible to justify only giving the incentives to employees who take up the vaccine as a proportionate means of achieving legitimate health and safety aims. As it has been throughout the pandemic, the use of incentives for vaccination is a relatively new and untested area of law. Therefore, there will always remain a degree of legal risk.
To reduce the risk of any future discrimination claims, employers should remain as understanding as possible towards employees who are more hesitant about getting vaccinated, taking account of individual beliefs or the fact that it is impossible for some employees to get vaccinated. Taking a softer approach to encouraging vaccine uptake, such as positive communication in the workplace and facilitating vaccine appointments, is recommended.