The topic of Covid has proved so divisive at the women’s healthcare business run by Julie Čolan that she has banned all mention of it during team meetings.
The pandemic has been a “nightmare” for company owner Čolan, after she saw trade fairs and exhibitions cancelled, leaving her with money tied up in unsold stock. On top of that, she has been worrying about the wellbeing of her staff.
Despite differing views about the jab among her three employees at Secret Whispers, based in Market Harborough in Leicestershire, Čolan has decided not to require them to be vaccinated. “They are very respectful but everyone has a different opinion,” Čolan said, adding: “I have asked them to be informed and do their research before they make up their mind. But it is their decision to make.”
UK companies large and small are debating the vaccine question, and whether to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated members of their workforce.
Even as plan B measures are due to be lifted in England this week, employers are still anticipating some level of disruption to their operations from Covid, including higher levels of staff absence. This comes at a time when many are trying to claw back the costs of keeping business going during the pandemic.
Like Čolan, the vast majority of employers have decided not to mandate vaccination for their staff, fearing it could risk resignations or even leave them open to legal claims of unfair dismissal or discrimination. Yet firms are divided over how best to proceed. In recent days, Next, Ikea and Ocado are among the firms to raise their heads above the parapet. The retailers have changed their company sickness policy and will be treating jabbed and unjabbed workers differently.
They follow a move by supermarket chain Morrisons, which last September became one of the first businesses to cut company sick pay for periods of self-isolation for unvaccinated staff, as part of a bid to stem rising costs after a slump in profits.
Unvaccinated workers at the retailers who have to isolate but do not test positive for the virus will only be eligible for statutory sick pay, now set at £96.35 a week – significantly below what the average worker would earn.
Meanwhile, engineering and consultancy group Wood is mandating its staff be vaccinated – unless they have an exemption, including those which are medical or religious.
Any of the energy service company’s 6,500 UK workers who choose not to get vaccinated will be expected to discuss this with their manager. They may end up working from home indefinitely, or have to undergo more frequent Covid testing before attending the workplace for meetings with colleagues or clients.
Current rules in all UK nations now make a clear distinction in self-isolation requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated people if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid. In all four nations, the unjabbed have to isolate for 10 days, even if they do not test positive for the virus.
In theory, there is no limit to how many times an unvaccinated person might come into contact with Covid, and be required to spend 10 days in isolation.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the impact of isolation requirements is being felt acutely in retail, where workers tend to have customer-facing jobs, which they cannot carry out from home.
Employment lawyers believe companies may introduce new sick pay policies as a way to exert subtle pressure on unvaccinated staff to get the jab. While some sick pay schemes are at the company’s discretion, businesses must also consider whether their decision could leave them open to legal claims.
“Lots of businesses will be weighing up the pros and cons of this. They’ll be looking at the financial implications, their health and safety obligations to their staff and customers,” said Fudia Smartt, an employment lawyer at law firm Spencer West.
“They will be weighing that up against a theoretical risk of, say, 5% [of staff] bringing claims. They may decide the risk is worth it.”
Most trade unions have encouraged their members to get vaccinated, but have also warned that cutting company sick pay could backfire, and potentially risk workplace outbreaks, if unvaccinated staff decide that they cannot afford to self-isolate.
Companies had already been struggling with a staffing squeeze for several months before the rise in Covid cases, said Matthew Percival, programme director for skills and inclusion at business group the Confederation of Business Industry (CBI).
“Higher levels of sickness absence and self-isolation caused by Omicron are adding to the pressure of labour shortages right across the economy,” Percival said.
Despite this, the vast majority of UK employers have shown themselves to be reluctant to mandate vaccination among their staff, preferring encouragement over coercion. This is partly due to high levels of vaccine uptake across the population, and also because employment rights are enshrined in UK law.
In the UK, employment lawyers and trade unions have warned that businesses requiring staff to be vaccinated – a so-called “no jab, no job” policy – is a moral minefield and also legally contentious.
This is a marked contrast with the US, where large employers including Wall Street bank Citigroup and tech giant Google have told their staff they need to be vaccinated or could face losing their job.
The government had to pass legislation to compel care homes to make sure all workers in England without medical exemption were fully vaccinated. Health secretary Sajid Javid has also told NHS staff and care-home workers that they are at risk of being sacked if they are not fully jabbed by April.
Employers who decide to obtain data on their workers’ vaccination status will have to handle this with caution. Vaccination status is classed as sensitive personal information, known in legal language as “special categories of personal data”, and has to be carefully stored and kept private to avoid breaking GDPR regulations.