Woman who stopped going to work over Covid concerns loses discrimination claim

Worker claimed her fear of contracting the virus was a protected belief after employer withheld her wages

A woman who stopped attending her workplace because she was scared of catching coronavirus was not discriminated against when her employer subsequently stopped paying her, a tribunal has ruled.

The woman, identified only as X, had taken the decision not to return to work in July 2020, citing “reasonable and justifiable health and safety concerns” around Covid in the workplace.

X also told the Manchester tribunal she had “a fear of passing [Covid] on” to her partner, who was at “high risk of getting seriously unwell” from the virus.

“I made a protected disclosure in good faith and asserted my statutory employment rights about a danger to the health and safety of myself and others, which I reasonably believed to be serious and imminent,” X told the tribunal.

However, on informing her employer – identified only as Y – of her decision not to return to work, X was informed that she would no longer be paid.

According to X’s statement, her employer told her: “I do not accept you had a reasonable belief that returning to work would put you or your husband in serious and imminent danger.”

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X argued that her fears around the dangers of coronavirus amounted to a genuinely held philosophical belief, which she described as “a fear of catching Covid-19 and a need to protect myself and others”.

Because her wages had been withheld, X argued that she had suffered a financial detriment because of this belief.

Judge Leach did not dispute that X’s concerns were genuine. However, he ruled that a fear did not amount to a belief, describing it instead as a “reaction to a threat” and a “need to reduce that threat”.

Leach also described X’s concerns as “a widely held opinion… [that] attending a crowded place during the height of the current pandemic would increase the risk of contracting Covid-19 and may therefore be dangerous.

“Few people may argue against that. However, a fear of physical harm and views about how best to reduce or avoid a risk of physical harm is not a belief for the purposes of section 10 [of the Equality Act],” he said.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said that while an employment tribunal’s ruling was not binding on other courts, this ruling was an indication of how future cases might be treated.

"A different court could well find differently on a different day,” she said. “Nevertheless, the ruling is indicative of the way that this matter is likely to be treated and will give some comfort to employers who are faced with similar accusations from their employees.

"Both discrimination and Covid are serious matters; however, this case suggests that fear of one does not lead to the other. This will help relieve at least some of the stress faced by already overwhelmed employers," said Palmer.