Co-Authored by Sasha Scott & Jordan Aitcheson-Labarr
The loosening of COVID restrictions in the UK signals to many the inevitable return to the workspace and other indoor venues and businesses. For some, this re-entry into the physical world will be a welcome reprieve from the monotony of Zoom calls and dodgy internet. Living with COVID for over a year now has left many at their wit’s end, estranged from both their work and peers, so a return to in-person activities presents a chance for many in our society to cultivate a community and connection that we may have taken for granted pre-pandemic.
Yet as restrictions begin to loosen, this chance for kinship after an arduous year may be thwarted on the issue of COVID vaccinations, and the measures being put in place to enforce them being taken. As of writing this, it is reported that about 46,388,744 in the UK have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and about 36,404,566 their second dose, and while this may seem promising (in addition to the UK being among the countries with the highest vaccination rollouts globally) the BBC reports that ‘the number of first doses administered each day is now averaging at about 55,000 - far below a peak of some 500,000 in mid-March’.
So why is the number falling, despite the fact that the vaccine requirements have been lowered to include younger people, and what does this mean for diversity and inclusion as we now enter into a space where COVID restrictions are being removed in most areas of life in the UK?
One reason for the fall in vaccinations may stem from the fact that there is a slight hesitancy in some younger people to get the vaccination, citing reasons ranging from an assumption that because they are younger, they are less likely to suffer die from catching COVID. If we compare the statistics, 56% of 18- to 24-year-olds have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine in comparison to 95% of 80–84-year-olds. While it’s important to note that younger people have had a shorter window in which to get their vaccines, it’s still worth observing their apprehension, especially those younger than 18, where it was reported some 14% of 16-to-17-year-olds were hesitant to get vaccinated as discovered by the Office for National Statistics. That’s 10 points higher than the rate for reported for adults.
However, other reasons for not getting vaccinated don’t always stem from hesitancy. Some have concerns about the vaccine’s contents and whether it will align with their faith (e.g., if the vaccine has animal products used in it or if it was tested on animals). While many vaccine manufactures have come out and assured the public that their vaccines have no traces of gelatine in them, it is standard practice in vaccine trials for animals to be tested on, so because of this, not only may some religious people not take the vaccine, but also certain animal rights activists and vegans may also choose to avoid it.
The more sceptical out there avoid getting vaccinated due to a mistrust of the government and medical experts, citing conspiracies and links to videos they found online as evidence to support their case. These people are called Anti-Vaxxers, and while they certainly aren’t new, the information they have been able to receive and disseminate through the internet and social media has been able to spread at an alarming rate, with one group called Save Our Rights UK having over 60,000 people following their Facebook page before it was removed from the platform for spreading medical misinformation.
Aside from, those who optionally may not want to take it, either due to their faith or ideology, there are some who simply can’t take the vaccine due to allergies. Yet, despite their differences, what all these groups have in common is that they will all likely emerge into these COVID restriction-less spaces unvaccinated. So, can they be reassured that they will not be treated differently, what are businesses and workspaces doing to ensure an equitable return to the workspace, will it be mandatory to have a COVID vaccine and carry proof of it on your persons from here on out?
Well, the answers to these questions are still emerging, however, some are clearer than others.
As of writing this, the government has issued regulations calling for all those that fall under the Care Quality Commission (CQC) as service providers who “provide accommodation for persons who require nursing or personal care, in care homes in England” to have both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, or evidence of their exemption if they want entry into the premises. It’s important to note this regulation and it’s subsequent consultation by the government is only an amendment to the Health and Social Care Act 2028 (Regulated Activities) Regulations 2014 (SI 2014/2936) and an amendment to the Code of Practice on Infection Prevention and Control and its associated guidance. It is not yet law and will only apply to those working in the care industry. So, while the government can make regulations to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of infection or contamination in England and Wales, it cannot make regulations that require a person to undergo mandatory medical treatment (e.g., have a vaccine).
However, it is possible that the government could restrict the movement of unvaccinated people under section 45B of the PHA 1984, or other countries could refuse them entry and we are already seeing this happen with the NHS COVID Passes, or as some people are calling them ‘COVID Passports’. The process to get your NHS COVID Pass is only accessible to those who have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, so already this is barring unvaccinated people from even beginning the process to allow them to acquire the pass, which offer’s perks such as the ability avoid quarantine upon return from most amber-list countries, the option to not self-isolate if a close contact tests positive for Covid, and entry into nightclubs and other venues like sports grounds if in possession of a valid NHS COVID pass come September.
The introduction and proposal for this pass to be used in areas extending travel is divisive in its scheme to get the nation back on its feet. The disparities that exist between the rich and the poor, the different ethnic and religious groups, and the young and the old when it comes the vaccine take-up means the differences that ensure we remain divided will only become further entrenched if we model the loosening of restrictions on a hierarchy of privilege where those who are vaccinated are awarded certain privileges over those who are not. Last month, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee or (PACAC) came out and said that the introduction of NHS Covid passes or COVID Passports would be “disproportionately discriminate” on grounds of race, religion, age and socio-economic background, and this sentiment was similarly shared by the World Health Organisation (or WHO) who at this current moment in time do not recommend the use of vaccine passports/passes.
Yet, this is only one of the issues that the COVID Passports present.
Attached to the NHS Covid Pass is the idea that once vaccinated, all risk of infection and transmission by COVID is eliminated, prompting many in possession to feel like they can gather and reject restrictions in the name of ‘returning to normal’. But as data technology experts at the Ada Lovelace Institute discovered: “vaccination status does not offer clear or conclusive evidence about any individual’s risk to others via transmission […] therefore any roll-out of a digital passport is not currently justified.”
It is undeniable to say the vaccine isn’t effective in lowering the risk of hospitalisation, but studies of more than of more 365,000 households by Public Health England showed that the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines reduce the risk of transmission by 40-60%. This is definitely a reduction in risk but not a total elimination. Thus, sending vaccinated people’s out into spaces untested and under the illusion that they are being safe and responsible is a dangerous precedent to set, especially when COVID is still a danger to those who are immunocompromised, with many still having to self-isolate and shield because restrictions are being lifted and vaccinated people aren’t being weary of their ability to transmit the virus.
So far 15 EU countries are issuing Covid-19 vaccine passports for travel, and this number doesn’t look to be slowing down with more countries expressing interest in trialling this scheme. The difficulties that this presents for those who are unvaccinated both abroad and in the UK is troubling when it comes to thinking about diversity and inclusion, and as a model, creates a damaging cycle of rejection where those who are unvaccinated are restricted and excluded from certain spaces, denied resources and work, and possibly endangered.
It is clear that at this point, that the UK government cannot make it mandatory for you to take the vaccine as there is currently no legislative power for them to mandate it as that would require further primary legislation. So, what is clear is that the government can restrict movement abroad and entry into certain venues and spaces here in the UK, but can employers do the same?
On the 12th of July 2021, Public Health England published a COVID-19 vaccination: guide for employers which instructed employers to encourage their staff to get vaccinated and suggested practical steps that employers could take to encourage vaccination uptake among staff (i.e., sharing information on the facts about vaccination, offering time off to attend vaccination appointments, and showing support for vaccination from senior leadership etc.). An employer cannot force an employee to be vaccinated without their consent, as there is currently no law making having the vaccine mandatory, and just this April, the EHRC (The Equality and Human Rights Commission) warned that blanket mandatory vaccination policies, applied inflexibly, are "likely to be unlawful" due to vaccination not being suitable for everyone as well as the discrimination risks.
Employees are still expected to follow COVID safety guidelines when in the building or workspace and aren’t meant to view vaccination as a suitable substitute as its effectiveness in lessening the spread of COVID is still under review.
Yet, while employers may have been advised to follow these guidelines, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily listen, nor that preferential treatment has stopped being given to vaccinated workers. In January 2021, a survey by HRLocker revealed that 23% of employers planned to make vaccination mandatory, and 49% of recruiters admitted they would prioritise vaccinated applicants during recruitment. Another survey polled by the Chartered Management Institute in March of 2020 found that 58% of managers believed that vaccination should be mandatory In June 2021.
A handful of organisations have even started mandating staff to be vaccinated before they return. A report from the BBC found that companies like publisher Bloomsbury will make vaccines compulsory for UK staff returning to its offices when they reopen, with the same going for places like Bank of America and even a plumbing business called Plimco plumbing, which said it would require compulsory vaccination for staff, with the company having already said it would not hire anybody new who was not vaccinated. Other companies that are following suit range from Netflix, banks like the US branch of JP Morgan (it is unclear if the UK branch will follow suit) and Google. However, Google, like other companies, has said that employees can apply to work from home permanently if they choose, and transfer offices, with this looking like a much less invasive procedure seeing as it was reported that productivity actually increased for workers when they were at home during the pandemic.
Vaccinations and issues surrounding its distribution and societal impact on individual status will likely be with us for years to come, and it is up to us to ensure it isn’t used and leveraged in a way to further disparage collective unity and transformative change. Suppressing the virus and its devastating impact on the world is a priority we can all agree on, but we must be careful we don’t sacrifice individual autonomy and forget about those with invisible aliments in our race to return to a Pre-Covid world (if that is even possible anymore).
Written By Jordan Aitcheson-Labarr
Vaccinations in United Kingdom - https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations
Covid vaccine: How many people in the UK have been vaccinated so far? - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55274833
Covid vaccine: How are young people responding to the jab? - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-london-57845115
U.K. Finds Greater Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy in Young People -https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-02/u-k-finds-greater-covid-19-vaccine-hesitancy-in-young-people
Facebook removes Save Our Rights UK Covid denial videos - https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/28/coronavirus-denial-videos-are-removed-from-facebook
COVID-19: employment implications of vaccination- https://uk.practicallaw.thomsonreuters.com/w-029-5946?documentSection=co_anchor_a435717&transitionType=Default&contextData=(sc.Default)&firstPage=true#co_anchor_a500002
'Covid passports': How can the NHS Covid Pass prove I've had both jabs? -https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/explainers-55718553
Vaccine Passports Aren’t Just Unfair, They Don’t Work -https://novaramedia.com/2021/07/26/vaccine-passports-arent-just-unfair-they-dont-work/
What Are The Rights-Based Implications Of Vaccine Passports? - https://eachother.org.uk/what-are-the-rights-based-implications-of-vaccine-passports/
Bloomsbury staff must be vaccinated before office return - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-57481895
Netflix US cast and crew must be vaccinated to work - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-58006810