Why you CAN’T refuse to go to work if you are afraid of catching Covid: Staff wary of the virus cannot use it as a reason to stay away from the office, employment tribunal rules
Staff cannot use a fear of catching Covid as a reason not to go back to the office, an employment tribunal has ruled.
This is because worries of getting infected with the virus and spreading it are not a legally protected philosophical belief.
A complaint of unlawful discrimination due to this fear was brought against an unnamed employer at a tribunal in Manchester this month.
The employment tribunal ruled that worries of getting infected with the virus and spreading it are not a legally protected philosophical belief (file photo used)
But Judge Mark Leach ruled that health and safety concerns do not qualify under equality legislation as a belief, meaning the employer could withhold their pay.
While the judgment does not set a wider legal precedent, it will give employers confidence if they are considering deducting pay or sacking staff who refuse to return to the office when the current work from home advice is relaxed.
An anonymous woman brought the alleged unlawful discrimination claim against her employer after she decided not to return to work on health and safety grounds in July last year.
A stay-at-home order was first introduced in March last year and many switched to working from their houses unless it was impossible to do so.
After the first lockdown was lifted, many employers encouraged staff back to the office in the summer.
In a statement to the tribunal, the woman said she had ‘reasonable and justifiable health and safety concerns about the workplace surrounding Covid-19’ and the risk posed to her was ‘serious and imminent’.
The woman said she had a ‘genuine fear’ of falling ill from the virus – and particularly of passing it on to her partner who she said was ‘at high risk of getting seriously unwell’.
Staff cannot use a fear of catching Covid as a reason not to go back to the office, an employment tribunal has ruled (file photo used)
When she asserted her ‘statutory employment rights about a danger to the health and safety of myself and others’, she claimed that her boss said: ‘I do not accept you had a reasonable belief that returning to work would put you or your husband in serious and imminent danger.’
Her employer withheld her wages, which she claimed was ‘discrimination on the grounds of this belief in regard to coronavirus and the danger from it to public health’.
But her case was not upheld after the judge ruled she was not discriminated against on the grounds of religion or belief when she refused to go to work.
A stay-at-home order was first introduced in March last year and many switched to working from their houses unless it was impossible to do so (file photo used)
Judge Leach said her fear was instead ‘a reaction to a threat of physical harm and the need to take steps to avoid or reduce that threat’.
‘Most (if not all) people, instinctively react to perceived or real threats of physical harm in one way or another,’ he said.
He added that her view could ‘be described as a widely held opinion based on the present state of information available that taking certain steps, for example attending a crowded place during the height of the current pandemic, would increase the risk of contracting Covid-19 and may therefore be dangerous’.
But he concluded: ‘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 [the legislation].’
The Government this month reinstated the advice to work from home where possible.