On May 4, a new cruise ship called the Spirit of Adventure is due to leave the English port of Dover on a maiden voyage like no other.

The vessel’s owner, Britain’s over-50s holiday and insurance group Saga, is one of the first large businesses to make Covid jabs mandatory for its customers. No one will be allowed on board unless they are fully vaccinated against coronavirus — or rather, almost no one.

In a sign of the fraught situation employers around the world face, the shots will be compulsory for passengers but not the ship’s crew.

“We would like the crew to be vaccinated if and when they can be,” the company says. “At the moment, we can’t be sure that they’re going to be able to do that, so the idea of compulsion would not feel right.”

Saga’s lopsided compromise is not unique. Months after the largest global vaccination campaign in living memory began, many employers are only beginning to grapple with its uncharted implications for their businesses and workforce.

One of the knottiest questions is whether inoculations should be mandatory, for staff or customers or both.

Considering the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, compulsory vaccinations might seem an obvious move, even if many employment lawyers say it is unclear if such steps are lawful. 

Yet Saga’s experience shows why relatively few companies have so far said they will adopt the “no jab, no job” policy that London’s Pimlico Plumbers plans to apply to new recruits. 

Saga hires its crews from agencies who in turn recruit from countries such as the Philippines, one of many nations still in the throes of organising vaccines which are set to be limited to priority cases.

Extensive testing

Making vaccines mandatory could make it hard for any cruise operator to find the hundreds of crew typically needed for a large ship. Saga’s crews will instead be quarantined for two weeks before the ship leaves port. They will only be allowed on board if they test negative and will undergo tests every three days during the cruise.

These procedures make more sense than compulsory vaccinations alone in any case, according to some senior figures in a global travel sector caught in the eye of the Covid-19 storm. “We don’t believe that vaccination should be a requirement for travel for many reasons,” says Gloria Guevara, chief executive of the World Travel & Tourism Council.

Such a requirement would unfairly discriminate against people in developing countries where vaccines are in short supply or non-existent, she tells the FT, and it could even impede the travel industry’s pace of recovery.

“Let’s say once the lockdown is lifted, you want to travel [from London], does that mean that you need to be vaccinated before going to Oxford or Northern Ireland?” she says. “Where do we draw the line?”

Vaccines alone cannot be a silver bullet for the industry, she says, adding testing, social distancing and masks would be vital for some time to come.

Still, there are signs that some employers will insist on mandatory vaccines. That could have a significant effect on jobs requiring a lot of business travel. 

Alan Joyce, chief executive of Australia’s Qantas airline, said in November that he believed vaccinations would become a “necessity” for international travel.

Since then, a care worker in the Australian state of Queensland has unwittingly revealed the minefield employers face when it comes to compulsory vaccinations.

An employment tribunal found last month that Maria Glover, 64, could argue for unfair dismissal after she lost her job at the Ozcare group she had worked for since 2009, having refused to have a flu shot. 

Ozcare said Covid-19 meant all staff had to have the jab but Ms Glover said a flu shot she had as a seven-year-old had nearly killed her and she still reacted badly to penicillin and mosquito bites. 

In a judgment on the case, Commissioner Jennifer Hunt wrote that, by this Christmas, men hired to play Santa Claus in shopping centres might be required to get a Covid-19 jab.

A court might have to decide later if that was legal, she added. “However in the court of public opinion, it may not be an unreasonable requirement. It may, in fact, be an expectation of a large proportion of the community.”

Treading carefully

But for the moment, companies are treading warily. Most are afraid to mandate the vaccine due to legal implications, says Brian Kropp, head of human resources research at the Gartner research and advisory group.

He says about 7 per cent of employers are avoiding discussing the vaccine with employees altogether, worried about lawsuits if, for example, an employee becomes sick after vaccination.

That may be wise. Though surveys before the pandemic showed nearly 80 per cent of people globally think vaccines are safe, one December poll showed only about 50 per cent of US workers think Covid vaccines should be mandatory at work.

Companies are unsure how to handle staff who object to jabs on medical or religious grounds, or because they are pregnant; expectant UK mothers are advised to avoid Covid jabs because they have yet to be tested on pregnant women. 

Some employers are strongly encouraging vaccines nonetheless, advising employees to take them, or even offering incentives such as the chance to win a TV in a raffle.

Typically it takes the form of compensation for time off. Dollar General, the US discount chain, gives employees a one-time payment equivalent of four hours of pay to cover the time it takes to get vaccinated. Instacart, the online grocery store, is offering a $25 “vaccine support stipend”.

But lawyers say these steps could be problematic elsewhere. In the UK, for example, those who refuse to be vaccinated could be deemed to be disadvantaged, says Sinead Casey, a partner at the employment and incentives practice of Linklaters, a law firm.

“We do therefore perceive a risk of claims under the Equality Act arising if this sort of incentivisation is adopted.” 

Still, some unions say vaccines at work are important. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, the UK union representing scientists and engineers, says he will encourage members to get vaccinated, ask reps to do the same locally, and have senior management publicise their own inoculations. “This is the greatest peacetime health and safety exercise we have seen in the UK,” he says. “And if we want it to be a success, union members need to be at the heart of it.”

How to handle vaccine hesitancy at work

First, consider communication. Relying on the CEO or HR as the principal vaccine messenger may backfire because employees are likely to suspect they are putting profits over welfare, pushing people to return to the workplace. 

Roger Steare, an adviser on ethics and leadership, suggests employers hold an open conversation about staff fears over the vaccine, taking in practical considerations. “Engage the union, or have an employee advisory board to consult employees,” he says.

Terminology is also important. Don’t use terms such as “anti-vaxxer”, says Rachel Botsman, an expert on trust and a fellow at Oxford university.

“It is far too oppositional. Extensive research shows facts about science and safety will not change their minds but may even harden their views. The first step for any company is to strive to understand where employees who are vaccine hesitant are coming from.”

It would be a mistake to treat employees who are hesitant about getting the vaccine as a homogenous group. Some are “sceptical of big pharma’s commercial interests, their religious beliefs prohibit vaccination, or they have a severe phobia of needles. Or maybe they need to fit into their circle of peers who are choosing not to have the vaccine. These are very, very different reasons and all require a different response.”

Employers should communicate different messages, ranging from logistical information to addressing those with concerns about the vaccine. “They have genuine questions and need to know their employers are listening to them.”

This group is crucial to focus on, she says. “The key is to provide them with the right public health information but allow them to get it from their peers or people they trust.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article