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Care worker who refused vaccine due to ethical veganism loses tribunal

Former Sunrise care worker, Tracy Owen, has lost an unfair dismissal claim last week (21 June) after she refused the coronavirus vaccine on the grounds of being vegan.

Sunrise, a care home in north west England, fired Tracy Owen in November 2021 after the government mandated all Care Quality Commission (CQC) registered staff in England must be fully vaccinated. 

This mandate was enforced between 11 November 2021 and 15 March 2022. 

Owen said she should be exempt from the jab because it had been tested on animals, and she is an ethical vegan. 

More on veganism:

Ethical veganism as a protected belief

Prejudice towards vegans endemic in the workplace

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

Ethical veganism extends beyond diet and includes ensuring no animal cruelty is involved in clothing, entertainment, cosmetics and hobbies.  

In 2020, a case ruled that ethical veganism is a philosophical belief that is protected by law against discrimination under the Equality Act. 

However, Rachel Mellor, the judge in Owen’s case, said the claimant struggled to provide credible detail about her beliefs. 

She said: “I accept she follows a vegan diet, and she avoids using some products that are not vegan.  

“However, I cannot conclude that she genuinely holds a belief in ethical veganism. 

“She gave no examples of ways in which her daily life is structured to adhere to her belief.  

“She gave me no examples of travel, clothing, holidays, whether she ate honey or figs, relationships for example.” 

As the tribunal did not find enough evidence to show Owen is an ethical vegan, she was not protected by the 2010 Equality Act and the claim was unsuccessful. 

Simon Jones, founder of HR consultancy Ariadne Associates, said Owen’s claim was unlikely to be successful even if she had been seen as an ethical vegan. 

Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Even if she had been treated as an ethical vegan, it's hard to see how a claim could succeed.  

“A requirement to have the Covid vaccination was enshrined in law for care home workers and so a refusal to have it would mean the home had a fair reason for dismissal." 

Katie Hodson, partner and head of employment at law firm, SAS Daniels said the judge also would need to find a link between veganism and refusing the vaccine. 

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “The judge noted that the claimant’s main issue with the vaccine appeared to be connected to it being experimental and in breach of health and safety, rather than veganism.  

“If the claimant was successful in arguing such a link, the employer might have been able to argue that her dismissal was justified due to the Covid concerns and protection of residents in care homes.”  

When employees make a claim due to their belief system, Hodson said the outcome can depend on a variety of factors. 

“Whether someone’s belief is considered to be philosophical belief under the Equality Act is usually highly fact specific, therefore it is important to obtain advice if an employee raises this,” she said.