Vaccines are one of the most efficient, safe and effective medical discoveries in history, eradicating or virtually eliminating many diseases around the world. And now, hopes are rising that an effective vaccine against COVID-19 will be available within the next year, after early data from the US company Moderna (MRNA) suggests a new vaccine is nearly 95% effective.
A vaccine is one of the biggest hopes to prevent the spread of the disease without the need for repeated lockdowns and social restrictions, which wreak havoc on the economy and our mental health. But leading scientists have warned that the growing anti-vaccine movement could undermine the roll-out of any future vaccine against coronavirus.
Many office workers are expected to continue working from home in the future, at least part of the time. But without a vaccine, those who have no option but to go to the workplace could be at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat suggested that anti-vaxxers who reject a safe vaccine may not be allowed back into their physical workplace by their employers. But could employers actually bar their employees coming into the office?
“For many, the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine is likely a big cause for celebration, especially if it could provide a way out of the pandemic crisis and the lifting of restrictions,” Andrew Willis, head of legal at the employment and HR law firm Croner.
“However, it is extremely unlikely that the government is going to implement a blanket instruction for every person in the UK to have the vaccine. Whether employers would therefore be able to ban people from coming into work who refuse to have it would ultimately be very case-specific.”
On the one hand, some industry sectors may implement a requirement for its staff to have the vaccine for safety reasons. For example, those working in care or the NHS will likely want to reduce the chances of a further outbreak in their workplaces and see the vaccine as a critical method for doing this.
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“That said, there is no confirmation that any sector is currently considering this, and it does remain to be seen if this is an option that would be explored,” Willis says.
“In workplaces that do not involve caring for vulnerable people, such as offices or retail, it may be considerably more difficult to try and put in place such a restriction,” he adds. “There could be several reasons why employees do not want to take the vaccine.
“They may have been advised not to due to a pre-existing disability, or the prospect of taking it may be having a negative effect on their mental health. If they are subjected to a detriment as a result of this, such as being told not to come into work or even dismissed, the company may face a costly discrimination claim.”
That being said, without widespread uptake of an effective vaccine, it may be difficult for life to return to normal without a surge in deaths as a result of coronavirus. A select few people may be unable to be vaccinated for health reasons, or may be “vaccine hesitant” because of underlying medical issues.
However, ideas spread by anti-vaccination groups are gaining influence in the UK. A recent survey commissioned by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that around one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated against COVID-19 and a similar proportion had yet to make up their mind. The survey, which polled 1663 people, found that individuals who relied on social media for information on the pandemic were more hesitant about the potential vaccine.
The NGO also released a report which found that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. The CCDH calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realise $1bn in annual revenues for social media firms.
“It remains to be seen if and when a vaccine will become available, and it is anticipated that restrictions will need to stay in place for some time regardless,” says Willis. “For now, employers should be patient and see how the situation develops.”