It was certainly the most welcomed news of 2020. The announcement this autumn that a vaccine against the Covid virus had been developed successfully brought hope to millions around the globe. Now, at the end of the year, there are three viable vaccines available, and the chance of a return to normal life is looking to be a real possibility.

The Vaccine and Your Workplace

For employers, however, the creation of the vaccine gives rise to some important issues. The vaccine is hoped to herald a safe return to normal life, including a return to workplaces, meaning that many business leaders are keen to establish who among their staff has been vaccinated. This information could play a significant role in planning working strategies surrounding who should continue to work remotely, or modifications to the office to ensure social distancing continues to be maintained. And whilst it’s likely to be many months before most of the general population becomes eligible for vaccination, it’s wise to consider the issue now in order to be prepared when the time comes.

The issue becomes one of data protection. Employees have a right to know why you are asking about their vaccination status, and what you intend to use the information for. This links back to the guidelines published earlier this year by the ICO (Information Commissioner’s Office), which dealt with data protection questions relating to employees and Covid. The advice stated that businesses should be able to ask staff if they were experiencing any of the virus’s symptoms, and to introduce testing if appropriate, but must make sure that the core principles of data protection law were upheld.

Three Core Principles

These three principles (transparency, proportionality and fairness) should be observed when considering data protection and your employees’ vaccination status. It’s a good idea to keep open communication with your employees, and explain exactly why you will ask them about their vaccination status. Let them know why you need to know their status, and let them know how their data will be stored, how long it will be kept for, and who would have access to it.

This information should also be shared with any visitors to your premises, should you want to ask for their vaccination status. And just as the guidelines state that employers have a duty to counter any misinformation about the Covid virus that may be heard in their workplace, so too should business leaders play their part in challenging any misinformation relating to vaccinations.

The question of consent is slightly more complicated. At present, the roll-out of the vaccine has been to a relatively small number of the most vulnerable members of society. Therefore, the government has not laid out any proposals as to how vaccination status might play a part in controlling the virus. As such, at this point (and until the law changes), according to the Data Protection Act, you will need consent to obtain data about a person’s vaccination status.

You could, however, describe the need to know an employee’s or visitor’s vaccination status as being in your “legitimate interests”. As the UK’s Data Protection law closely follows GDPR regulations, the guidelines look unlikely to change following January 1.

It’s still incredibly early days for the vaccine, but it’s a good idea to be prepared. The advice for employers at present is broadly consistent with all data protection regulation. Making sure that any employee data is collected discreetly, and that employees are fully informed about the use and storage of their data is paramount. As ever, maintaining the security of personal data should be a priority for all organisations, with access carefully monitored.

By being mindful as to how the vaccine might affect your working practices, and putting in lawful measures to protect your business, we should all be able to look forward to a happier- and healthier- 2021.