With over 27 million people in the UK having now received their first vaccination against COVID-19, employers are beginning to feel more hopeful that their workforce will be able to safely return to the workplace in just a few months’ time. However, there’s been increasing debate about whether employers should expect employees to be vaccinated before returning to work – and for agency workers, discourse gets a little more complicated.
It hasn’t been smooth sailing…
Earlier this year, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) raised concerns that many key workers, particularly temporary or agency staff, were slipping through the net of the UK’s vaccine programme. In early February, more than two in five agency nursing staff and one in four temporary staff had not received a vaccine – compared to just one in eight permanent hospital workers. As highlighted here, there are a number of potential inequalities laying within the vaccine rollout.
Under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003, employment agencies and employment businesses have certain obligations to ensure a temporary worker’s health and safety. A worker must not be introduced or supplied unless sufficient information on risks to health and safety has been provided and the hirer has taken steps to prevent or control those risks.
And, in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine, organisations who are providing inoculations to their employees should also be making them available to temporary workers. If an organisation confirms that they have started a company-wide vaccination programme, employment businesses can request confirmation about whether their agency worker will be able to access the vaccine.
So, if a vaccine is available, can employers insist on workers getting it?
Robert Buckland, Secretary of State for Justice, said making new staff get vaccinated could, in theory, be possible if it was written into their contracts. Of course, under their current contracts, this isn’t necessarily possible. Pimlico Plumbers, Barchester Healthcare and Care UK now require all new employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine before starting work. A spokesperson for Care UK explained that at both the application and interview stage, candidates are asked whether they have had, or would be willing to have, the vaccination.
Here, there are a number of legal, ethical and moral concerns to consider. Businesses are not allowed to discriminate against people for reasons including disability, pregnancy and religious belief – all of which are reasons why a vaccination invitation may be declined. The vaccine also isn't suitable for people with certain health conditions, including particular allergies and immune system problems.
Let’s not forget that not all workers will face the same level of risk, even when they’re working for the same organisation. For those in frontline roles, the vaccine may be deemed necessary, but for others it may be a very different scenario. Employers and employment agencies should evaluate the health and safety risks on a case-by-case basis, encouraging employees and temporary staff to accept their vaccine invitations, but not making it compulsory without a strong argument and a thorough review of the current contracts in place.
In the coming months, agencies must be prepared to mitigate any disputes that will inevitably arise, as well as manage the varying expectations of their clients. There will be no one-size-fits-all approach to every individual, every agency and every end client, and there may well be some tough decisions to make. Education, encouragement and understanding are key, and employers and agencies must be open to compromise.