In a controversial new development, Ikea today announced that only “fully vaccinated co-workers or those with mitigating circumstances will receive full pay for self-isolation.” This is a significant development. Ikea is now paying employees and workers who have chosen not to be vaccinated statutory sick pay (SSP) of £96.35 a week as against full pay if fully vaccinated. It is almost inevitable that cases will follow this new policy.
For most of the pandemic, anyone who came into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 had to self-isolate for 10 days. Many will remember the “pingdemic” of summer 2021 and the serious supply chain shortages that followed as a result. In one week in July 2021, 700,000 people were self-isolating in England and Wales after coming into contact with people who had tested positive.
Since 16 August 2021, people who have had at least two vaccine doses and are without symptoms or a positive test do not need to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus. This was a major step forward for employees who were not able to work from home and in turn was of major benefit to their employers. At that time, some people, particularly younger employees, had not yet had the chance to get vaccinated. However, every adult in the UK has now been offered the vaccine. The only people who are now unvaccinated are those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or those who have chosen not to get the vaccine.
Employers have recognised employees who refuse to get the vaccine are causing disproportionate financial loss. While (in many cases) it would be unfair to dismiss an employee for not being vaccinated, employers are now starting to take action. Ikea’s announcement represents a significant development. Whilst it is not the first employer to consider this approach, given its been taken by such a high-profile company, it is likely to set a precedent.
Many employers will be monitoring this development closely. It is clear that applying similar policies without exemptions could be discriminatory against employees who (eg for medical reasons) are unable to be vaccinated. Employers offering discretionary sick pay schemes, providing their discretion takes account of those unable to be vaccinated may well introduce similar sick pay restrictions. However, those employers with contractual sick pay schemes will need to be more careful as such a change as to when sick pay is paid could be a fundamental breach (or unreasonable variation) of the contract of employment.
Some commentators have suggested that penalising employees for refusing to be vaccinated could, in some situations, constitute religion or belief discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. However, in our view, this is overstated. Age discrimination (which was a potential concern at the start of the vaccine roll-out) is no longer relevant now that every adult has had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
What is certain is that employers should act with caution and take expert advice before following Ikea’s example to ensure in taking steps to save costs now they don’t give themselves a bigger financial headache later due to contested claims from unvaccinated employees.