Written Friday 3rd September 2021

Vaccine passports: what do we need to know?

Vaccination passports have been a hot topic over the last few months. Restrictions in the UK have eased, and with over half of the UK adult population now fully vaccinated, the debates surrounding grabbing a jab, and what vaccines mean for our social and professional lives, is ongoing.

Vaccination against Covid-19 – whichever one you go for, if you decide to have one at all – appears to offer people more freedom. When it comes to travel, double-jabbed adults can dodge quarantine rules when returning from amber-list countries, and they can also now avoid self-isolation after contact with a positive Covid case (unless, of course, they start displaying symptoms themselves). It’s worth remembering, too, that with rules constantly changing, there are likely to be many more updates in store.

But while vaccines could be the way out from remaining restrictions for some, they impose limitations for others. The Prime Minister announced that vaccine ‘passports’ – or proof of full vaccination status –  would also be needed to go into nightclubs, for example, and there was also a brief time when they were thought to be necessary for students attending university lectures (though that was quickly nipped in the bud).

It’s only natural, then, to wonder where else we might need to prove our vaccination status in the future. Of course, we’re thinking specifically about the workplace.

In the US, some businesses have already started asking their staff to make sure they’re double jabbed before rejoining office life. Google and Facebook are among this group who require full vaccination status for in-house staff. Indeed, in some industries, it’s already being put in place, with care homes expecting mandatory vaccination status from care workers looking after the vulnerable from autumn 2021.

The idea of mandatory employee vaccination in offices has previously been dismissed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps – although he was in support of businesses encouraging teams to get the jab, believing that many would make it necessary on their own terms.

When asked about it on Sky News in July, he said: “We’re not going to make that legislation, that every adult has to be double-vaccinated before going back to the office – but yes, it’s a good idea.”

So what would that mean for employers and employees alike? How would it work? Is it discriminatory to expect colleagues and employees to be fully vaccinated, and what are the pros and cons?

It’s important for all staff to feel safe in their place of work. With many employees slowly returning to the office after a long time away, there are bound to be nerves and concerns. After all, we’ve been training ourselves to stay away from high-risk, busy, enclosed spaces for so long; spending most of your week in a room with your colleagues is bound to feel at least a little strange.

Encouraging full vaccination status from employees could help to create a reassuring and safe working environment, which may help to encourage apprehensive staff back into the building. Additionally, it would ensure that the most vulnerable members of staff are protected, forming an inclusive environment and allowing all staff to have the option to stop working from home.

While also bringing health and inclusivity benefits, it could also (to put it bluntly) be good for business, decreasing the risk of lower staff numbers due to sickness, leave and periods of isolation.

But it’s not necessarily as straightforward as all that.

There’s the very real issue of mandatory vaccination being discriminatory against employees. Speaking to The Independent, Elissa Thursfield, a director at Gamlins Law, said: “Having a blanket policy is almost always dangerous – it’s fraught with legal difficulties,” 

“For existing staff, if you don’t have a clause in your contract that says you can receive mandatory instructions on health, which is rare, that’s potentially a breach of contract, as well as the discrimination claims.”

Only in recent months have the younger age groups been offered their first jab, and with an eight week recommended gap, it’s still a long wait for many to reach full vaccination status. Other groups, including those with certain allergies and many pregnant people, are advised to avoid vaccination. Furthermore, statistics show that some ethnic groups are less likely to get the vaccine, and many have chosen not to book their jab. Mandatory vaccination would mean extensive discrimination against all of these groups, whether their unvaccinated status is through choice or not. Such a sweeping approach could breach The Equality Act and cause countless legal issues.

While the rules and regulations surrounding different countries are changing regularly, and not every destination is ‘open’ to visitors, travel is back on the cards for many UK residents. Not only is this great news for families waiting to be reunited and holidaymakers desperate for a change of scenery, but plenty of organisations and companies who rely on international travel will be able to start their voyages once more.

The UK Covid pass, and proof of vaccination, is necessary for travel to some destinations, and can also allow exemption from quarantine, making the journey even quicker and easier. For businesses that are looking to make travel a regular requirement, encouraging vaccination could help to ensure employees are safer on their travels, and back in the office with less of a wait.

Of course, this isn’t faultless. Now that we’ve grown used to online events, and the climate crisis is highlighting the need for less unnecessary travel, some companies could start changing how they approach travel on an international level, regardless of Covid. If this is the case, this would ensure all team members could participate in activities such as international conferences, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated or not. Keeping these activities online also improves accessibility, making the experience fully inclusive; removing or reducing the need to travel, even within the UK, would have extensive benefits – and would also make the need for vaccine passports less essential.

This all boils down to the idea of allowing colleagues and employees to exercise free will and free choice in the workplace. Being able to express yourself and enact your beliefs safely within the office is fundamental, so long as it doesn’t breach company policy or discriminate against others. Ensuring teams feel included, respected and supported is incredibly important. 

Whatever happens, and whatever different organisations choose to do regarding the vaccination statuses of their employees, it’s clear they must tread carefully, keep inclusivity a priority, and ensure that the safety, wellbeing and inclusion of their teams remain their top priority.