What could Covid passports mean for employers?

With the government considering introducing certificates to prove immunity, People Management explores the implications for businesses hoping to reopen workplaces

As the UK finally begins to reopen after months of lockdown, and as part of the plan to safely start the economy back up again, the government is considering rolling out Covid status certification – also known as vaccine passports.

The concept has long been mooted as a way to make international travel safe, with some countries already requiring proof of a recent negative Covid test before boarding an inbound flight. But the Covid status certification proposal would take this a step further by providing proof that individuals are not infectious – be it through vaccination, a recent negative Covid test or even immunity gained from having had the virus – which could be used to allow them into shops or venues.

While the measure has been highly contested, with a number of MPs already voicing their opposition, it could become part of a toolkit to help consumers and event-goers return to some form of normality. But could vaccine passports also help businesses return their staff to the workplace?

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment for their employees, says Carl Atkinson, partner in the employment and pensions team at Gunnercooke. In the case of protecting against the risks of coronavirus, status certificates are a tool that businesses can consider: “Covid passports could help in discharging this obligation and providing the greatest level of assurance that the work environment is as safe as possible with reasonable precautions.”

Atkinson adds this could be particularly helpful in situations where businesses are facing challenges encouraging staff to return to the workplace, offering “reassurance to reluctant employees”, and says some organisations could even find they are economically compelled to adopt passporting. A number of airlines, for example, have already said they will not carry passengers who have not been vaccinated. “Competitor airlines may be forced to adopt this strategy to compete,” he says.

But while vaccinations are not uniformly available, except to those considered extremely vulnerable to the virus, the rollout in the UK has so far only made it to the over 50s, and employers need to avoid introducing any policies that could be considered discriminatory to those who have not yet been given the opportunity to have the jab. This risk is further compounded by the fact that some groups, such as pregnant women, have been advised not to have the vaccine, while other groups including some ethnic minorities are statistically much less likely to be vaccinated.

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“I have been advising business clients that if they impose a detriment upon non-vaccinated workers [or] customers, this may be discriminatory and breaching the Equality Act,” warns Atkinson. “As a consequence there is an element of legal risk of a discrimination claim associated with Covid passports.” This risk will be reduced if or when vaccination is widely available to everyone in the UK’s working population; however, this might not happen for many months.

Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, says Covid status certification could be particularly useful for employers planning to implement a vaccine requirement for current or prospective employees. But he also warned: “This stance should only be taken after considering all of the factors involved, including whether it would be a reasonable instruction or whether it would discriminate against employees with protected characteristics.”

Vaccine passports could also be useful for businesses whose workforces need to travel overseas, Price adds. “This type of certification is required to gain entry to some countries,” he says.

However, Giles Fuchs, CEO of Office Space in Town, says that, in the immediate term, the bigger issue is not the risk of vaccine passports, but how to make workplaces safe without them. "Any steps that support a safe return to the workplace and inspire confidence among employees should be considered but, if introduced, Covid certificates must have a clear sunset and should not be put forward on a long-term basis,” he says.

This was echoed by Atkinson, who says that even if vaccine passports are issued to individuals who could produce a negative Covid test – something being considered in the government’s proposal – the lateral flow tests that are already in use do have a margin for error and can produce false negative results. “I would be concerned that any business that relied upon the accuracy of lateral flow tests to offer employees a safe place to work may be acting unreasonably,” he says.

“Given present media reports about lateral flow test accuracy I would recommend that any employer that was considering the introduction of a policy that relied upon Covid passports that could be obtained with a negative lateral flow test should also have all other reasonable precautions and safety systems in place.”