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British Airways pilot loses anti-mask tribunal

Claimant Peter Burch said he wants the right to "breath freely... both metaphorically and literally"

A British Airways pilot who argued that his stance against wearing a mask during the Covid-19 outbreak was the equivalent to a religious belief has lost his claims for harassment and discrimination.

Claimant Peter Burch said he was so stressed after being told in February 2022 that he had to wear a mask while flying during the pandemic that he went on sick leave.

Burch, who joined BA in 1996, reported to work without a mask, claiming he was "exempt". 

When Burch continued not to comply he was placed on unpaid leave, the employment tribunal heard.

Burch said: “I formed the belief based on the fact that no one wore a mask ever in the entirety of human existence. I believe if cloth masks stopped the transmission of disease, humans would have worked that out when cloth was first invented. 

“We breathe the air to keep healthy”.

Burch also said he was opposed to the government reaction to Covid-19.

He said: “During the time I was absent from work, I read a lot of information about Covid-19 and found that I was increasingly in disagreement with the government response to the pandemic and experienced increasing anxiety about public health policy. 

“I was frightened by what I believe to be government over-reach and I became very concerned about the future.”

Read more: UK worker loses Covid safety tribunal

However, the judge said Burch’s anti-mask views do not amount to a philosophical belief as it could potentially affect someone else’s right to life.

Simon Jones, director of HR consultancy Ariadne Associates, said there are five conditions for a belief to be legally protected.

It must be:

  • Genuinely held;
  • A belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • About a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • A certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion, and importance; and
  • Worthy of respect in a democratic society, is not incompatible with human dignity, and does not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

He said: "Luckily for employers there are now well-established tests that tribunals use to decide if a belief is protected under the Equality Act. In this case Mr Burch actually failed four of the five tests, but in particular because the tribunal ruled that his belief could cause serious harm or death to others."

Read more: Protected beliefs: what's in and what's out?

He added when an employee objects to safety rules, employers should consider the impact on others.

He said: "In similar cases, if an employee has an objection to following a safety rule because of religious or other belief, then an employer would need to consider the impact on others. Good risk assessment is key to supporting an employer's decision."