A veterinary assistant who raised concerns about her boss’s unwillingness to create a Covid-secure workplace was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has found.
The Bury St Edmunds tribunal ruled that Charlotte Rendina was unfairly dismissed when she challenged her employer Dr White’s theory that coronavirus was “hyped up” and his attempts to force employees to attend work against government advice during the first lockdown.
The tribunal found that despite arguing that he dismissed Rendina for poor work performance, his evidence was “hopelessly unconvincing” as she had voiced her concerns in a “reasonable and polite fashion”.
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A further claim for the recovery of deducted holiday and notice pay were also upheld.
Rendina worked at Royston Veterinary Centre as an assistant veterinary surgeon from 20 January 2020 until her dismissal on 30 March 2020. The tribunal heard that Rendina, who is of joint Italian and British nationality, had family in Italy when the coronavirus pandemic first emerged there in February and March 2020.
On 16 March 2020 – the same day the government asked the UK population to avoid non-essential travel and contact – Rendina asked practice manager Mrs Young if she would be able to wear a mask when at work because she was asthmatic and concerned about contracting the virus. Young told Rendina to speak to White.
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That evening, White chaired a staff meeting about Covid and the tribunal heard that he said it was like a “cold or flu” and being “over-hyped by the press”, but did agree that Rendina could wear a mask.
However, during the meeting he allegedly said there was “no need” for signs, notices, hand sanitiser or wipes. Following the meeting, Rendina raised her concerns about the lack of measures to keep staff and clients safe with Young, who then passed them on to White.
On 23 March 2020, Rendina attended a webinar organised by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) regarding Covid, and sent what she learned to White and Young in an email. The BVA recommended minimising contact with clients and colleagues, working from home where possible, and delaying routine work.
Rendina’s email asked for White to implement the BVA’s recommendations and also outlined her concern for friends and family in Italy and for her elderly UK-based grandmother whom she may have had to care for. She added: “I apologise if I may have come across as ‘unfriendly’ lately, it is a very difficult time.”
That evening, when the prime minister announced the first lockdown, White sent text messages to all the practice staff to say the practice would be open “as normal” and to come in at their normal times.
The tribunal heard that Rendina felt “uneasy” the following morning at work and wanted time to consult with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), her profession’s regulatory body, because she didn’t want to breach the Veterinary Code of Practice.
She told the tribunal that she avoided undertaking non-essential procedures the following day for this reason, but instead had told White she was not happy doing them in a “clinical sense” as a newly-qualified vet.
She spoke to the RCVS on the same day, which confirmed that depending on the circumstances, carrying out routine procedures might be a breach of the Veterinary Code of Practice. Rendina then revealed to Young why she had been avoiding procedures and Young passed that information on to White.
He arranged a practice meeting for later that evening with the entire workforce. Rendina recorded the meeting and the transcript suggests she and White had a disagreement about the severity of the pandemic, with White saying it had been “hyped up”. A nurse replied that the government was reacting with a lockdown because people are “dying” of something that is “literally [becoming] worse daily”, to which White replied: “No, incorrect.”
On 30 March, White met with Rendina without warning at the end of her shift to tell her he was dismissing her because he felt they had “reached a level of discord that was not amenable”.
Judge Warren found that White was “very irritated” at Rendina and that the wording of the dismissal letter, which used the phrase “level of discord between us”, corroborates his irritation.
“I find that the cause of that irritation was Rendina raising concerns about the arrangements in place to protect herself, her colleagues and visitors to the premises from the spread of the coronavirus,” Warren said.
The tribunal noted White tried to argue that the reason for her dismissal was actually because of client complaints, lateness and completing records incorrectly. But Warren concluded that this evidence was “hopelessly unconvincing” and that the reason for her dismissal was her raising concerns in a “reasonable and polite fashion” about health and safety during the pandemic.
The amount of compensation Rendina will receive has not yet been determined. But, Warren added, the “quantum of Rendina’s claim is very modest indeed” and expressed hope that a remedy hearing “would not be necessary”.
Royston Veterinary Centre has been contacted for comment. Rendina could not be reached.