Covid-19: Requirements for Employees to be Vaccinated

Steven Bonnar Excerpts
Monday 24th January 2022

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Paisley. I thank all the petitioners who signed the petition. I believe this shows our democracy in action, which is why I always like to come along to petition debates.

E-petition 599841 calls upon the UK Government to prohibit employers from asking their employees to be vaccinated before starting employment, a hugely impactful decision with consequences that stretch across many sectors and industries. Enforcing the vaccination of employees, according to the petition and the petitioners, violates the concept of informed consent. I find that hard to disagree with. We do not live in a totalitarian society, and we should not expect individuals to be punished or persecuted for refusing vaccinations.

Mandatory vaccination in the workplace is, in my opinion, fundamentally and morally wrong. Instead of using—for want of a better word—force, the Scottish Government believe that we should educate and encourage individuals to receive vaccines through persuasion rather than coercion. With the idea of mandated vaccinations being mooted, I believe that more employers will act to reduce statutory sick pay for unvaccinated employees who are forced to, for example, self-isolate.

Companies such as Morrisons, IKEA and Next have already moved to implement such policies, and it is only a matter of time before more follow. Perhaps instead of introducing mandatory vaccinations, the Government should consider enacting legislation to prevent employers from altering their sick pay policies in relation to unvaccinated workers. A pandemic should not be an opportunity to lessen employment rates. As a morally just legislature and legislators, we should simply not allow that to happen.

Given the Government’s requirements for healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated by April, it is important to understand that healthcare professionals feel a duty of care towards their patients, but mandatory vaccination is not the answer. If there was overwhelming evidence that the vaccine prevented someone from passing the virus to others, it might be justified or compelling. Unfortunately, we know that vaccines, amazing as they are and have been, do not work in that manner, and I do not see how we can justify such moves. The health unions agree, and have criticised the policy, pointing out that it might result in the loss of up to 10% of staff at some hospitals in England when it comes into effect. With an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 NHS workers in England who have not yet been vaccinated, the consequences could be irreversibly damaging.

At the weekend, we witnessed frontline health workers join in the many anti-vax protests in the streets. The conflating of both groups is of real concern. With a workforce that is already depleted across the NHS and other sectors, I am concerned about and resist in the strongest terms any “no jab, no job” policy. The NHS cannot afford for employees to be absent from work. It would be a form of self-sabotage to terminate the contracts of valuable, hard-working healthcare workers now.

Unlike the UK Government, the Scottish Government have not mandated vaccination of care home or NHS staff in Scotland, instead relying on an educate and inform strategy that has resulted in a higher vaccine uptake to date. A constituent who works in University Hospital Monklands spoke to me recently about how his day-to-day experience over the duration of the pandemic—seeing at first hand the effects of covid-l9 on the unvaccinated and on treatment options—was the greatest first-hand insight that he and his colleagues could gain in convincing them to take the vaccine. There was no need for any forced-hand approach; seeing and learning about the effects of the virus was all the education required.

The covid vaccine is entirely voluntary in Scotland, and the Scottish Government have no plans to change that for healthcare workers or anyone else. The Scottish Government have put public health and welfare at the forefront of their coronavirus response, and will do so for the duration of the pandemic. Scotland’s first and second vaccine uptake rates are the highest in the UK, and Scotland’s booster campaign is second in the world, behind only Chile. All five of the UK’s most vaccinated regions are in Scotland, with Argyll and Bute topping the list with a vaccination rate of 99.8%.

There are several reasonable and fully acceptable reasons why people prefer not to get vaccinated. Some persons are unable to receive vaccinations due to underlying or pre-existing medical problems. Trypanophobia, a severe and overpowering fear of needles, accounts for up to 10% of vaccine phobia in the United Kingdom. Many people are hesitant to obtain the vaccine because they believe in simple vaccine myths that conflict with their religious convictions, such as the belief that vaccines perhaps contain aborted foetal cells.

Explaining why vaccines do not violate religious or moral precepts, as well as answering honest and sincere questions about assisting individuals with needle phobias, is a considerably more successful means of increasing vaccination uptake. Educate, educate, educate—we have heard that many times within these walls over the years. Forcing vaccination will not help people to overcome their fears, which are frequently the result of trauma. In fact, doing so may well exacerbate such fears. Support and encouragement is the best way to get people who have fears vaccinated. Mandates would cause more harm than good to any individual, but also to us all in society. Why would we allow for such legislation, when the outcome is significantly negative?

When it comes to employment, the law is ultimately decided here in Westminster, which has the final say on which laws companies must follow. As a result, any questions about the legality of companies requiring vaccination are left to Westminster and, latterly, to the courts. Legal experts have already noted that making vaccination mandatory could result in civil cases under the Equality Act 2010, given its potentially discriminatory nature. For example, employers who belong to a religious group that opposes all medical treatments or vaccines, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, may be able to claim indirect discrimination. The law is not clear on vaccination mandates and must be addressed by the Government. From the standpoint of employment law and non-discrimination, it is safer to encourage immunisation than to mandate it. I urge the UK Government to reconsider their position and adopt the Scottish Government’s approach of allowing individuals to have freedom over what they put into their own bodies.

To conclude, I urge the UK Government to reconsider their position and adopt a strategy that we have seen work for the Scottish Government by educating communities, educating religious leaders and allowing individuals to choose what they put into their own bodies. Lastly, I urge everybody, if they can, to get vaccinated.