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What COVID means for unvaccinated workers

As the UK government continues its push for vaccinations as the first line of defence against COVID-19, questions have risen about what lies ahead for the country’s unvaccinated population.

According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures, an estimated 5.1 million eligible people have not yet been vaccinated.

In December, health secretary Sajid Javid estimated that 90% of those seriously ill and in hospital with coronavirus were unvaccinated.

Javid has also since stated that further restrictions, such as a lockdown, in England to limit the spread would be “an absolute last resort”.

With vaccination only mandatory for care-based work, most employers in other sectors will be having to decide how best to protect their workforce if facing jab objections and absences due to COVID illness.

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Speaking to HR magazine Neil Morrison, HR director at Severn Trent, said that one of the key considerations going forward will be whether employers will be able to treat COVID like other sickness absences.

He said: “Many organisations are currently making exceptions for COVID absences, but at some point, as we move from pandemic to endemic, those that choose not to be vaccinated, rather than have a medical reason, may have to be treated in line with other sickness absences. And, dependent on the self-isolation requirements, could see themselves triggering absence levels under existing policies.”

In cases of medical exemption or ethical refusal, for example if an employee refuses vaccination because they are pregnant, employers have to be careful to avoid discrimination when taking action based on employees’ vaccine status.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, told HR magazine employers would have to exhaust all other options first before separating vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

“If a decision to separate can be objectively justified, it’s imperative that employers provide equal opportunities to all staff members, regardless of vaccination status,” Palmer said.

“This includes in recruitment and selection for internal vacancies and when providing enhanced benefits.”

However, she added: “Organisations which have been able to operate without major COVID outbreaks may have limited scope for enforcing this, as it would be seen that other protective and preventative measures are working. This may be through use of PPE, sanitising stations, social-distancing or mask wearing.”

A potential review of COVID measures in England from prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to take place today, however it is rumoured that restrictions will remain the same as government awaits more data on Omicron infections.