Conditional Immunity

The debate about the use of coronavirus vaccination passports has begun and some employers will inevitably introduce conditional immunity policies to reduce the risk of infection in the workplace. Internal communicators will need to communicate this to employees in the right way.

It was inevitable that at some point in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout the issue of vaccine passports would rise up the discussion agenda.

So far in the UK, the debate has been in the context of ‘going to the pub’ or ‘going on holiday’. However, there is a wider and more serious issue of whether or not some employers will begin to impose a requirement for their existing and potential employees to be able to evidence immunity to Covid-19 from either having a vaccination or recovery from infection, with obvious consequences if they cannot.

If employers do introduce conditional immunity policies, then internal communicators will have a part to play in communicating this new requirement to employees. However, I think that many of us have not even begun to consider how to do this given our current preoccupations with the continuing dominance of the wellbeing agenda and trying to work out how we might contribute to establishing hybrid working, by creating the organisational cultures that will support this.

So far, I haven’t seen much debate in the internal communications community about conditional Covid-19 immunity for employees, but the issue is creeping up on us and we need to be considering how we should best communicate it to employees.

This is not about Diversity and Inclusion

As the debate over the need for and acceptability of vaccine passports has begun, some have immediately pushed the ethical issues of equality and exclusion to the top of the discussion agenda.

Stop right there! In the context of employment and the workplace these are not the things that we should be focusing on. It would be a mistake for internal communicators to get sidetracked by this wider societal debate about the ethics of vaccine passports, and try to communicate the need for conditional immunity inside organisations under the banner of Diversity and Inclusion.

For some employers, diversity in Covid immunity status in workforces will be an unacceptable risk in the workplace, and in some cases, possibly forbidden by law in the near future. Employers will inevitably implement conditional immunity policies to mitigate the risk.

Given the obvious sensitivities, such conditional immunity policies must be implemented fairly and transparently, particularly if there are reasonable adjustments to be made for those who cannot accept the vaccine for medical reasons. However, this is not a D&I issue and shouldn’t be communicated internally as such. 

Employment is conditional

The fact is, like so many other things in our lives, employment is conditional. The choices that we make in our lives mean that we can either comply with conditionality or not, giving us the freedom to participate in certain activities or be excluded from them.

For example, we accept that we are not able to legally drive a vehicle without having a valid driving licence. To drive without a licence is rightly considered to be a crime, given the potential for harm and injury to others. We do not question this. It is an accepted societal norm.

Accepting or refusing a Covid-19 vaccination is also a choice, like all the other choices we make in life, and it potentially has consequences for what we will be allowed to do as individuals in the future, including where we can work.

Employment has always been conditional and we accept that we are not able to do certain jobs without the relevant qualifications, experience, professional body memberships, other accreditations or security clearances. Entry to certain types of employment is denied to us because of this, and the choices we made about the life and career path we followed earlier in our lives fundamentally underpins this.

In some professions it is already a conditional requirement to have immunity to certain blood borne diseases such as Hepatitis, and travelers and workers are denied entry to some countries without a valid Yellow Fever vaccination certificate. These requirements are communicated as a health and safety issue and this is a clue for how we should be communicating conditional Covid-19 immunity in workplaces as we emerge from the pandemic.

Health and Safety

Many internal communicators will already have worked on Health and Safety campaigns inside their organisations. Indeed, many of us have already done this during the pandemic as workplaces re-opened after lockdowns to explain to employees what they needed to do to keep themselves and others safe from infection.

Health and Safety campaigns are rarely the most exciting of communication projects to work on, but they are essential in helping to keep employees safe at work and in enabling employers to meet their legal obligations in minimising risks to health, wellbeing and life in the workplace.

Successful health and safety communications often focus on influencing behaviours and attitudes to make sure employees do the right things to minimise risk and keep themselves and colleagues safe, and I’ve written before about the power of using behavioural insights to shape impactful communications using concepts like the EAST Model.

Similarly, in the case of conditional Covid-19 immunity, internal communication cannot just be about simply explaining the reasoning and rationale for it, but must also create the context and attitudes that make it an accepted societal norm in the workplace environment. Behavioural insights and communications grounded in behavioural psychology will be the best tools we have to do this.

Those without immunity are a workplace health and safety risk

If you are an internal communicator in the UK, don’t bury your head in the sand and think that this won’t become an issue because of the apparent success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout here. It will, because their will likely be significant numbers of people who will not voluntarily accept the vaccine.

For the last few weeks I have been working as an NHS volunteer in my spare time, calling people to offer them the vaccine. Frankly, I have been dismayed at the vaccine hesitancy and rejection I have encountered whilst doing this, and this hesitance has increased as we have worked down through the eligible age groups. 

My role has not been to persuade, but to simply make the offer and book people in to have the jab if they accept it. I’ve been astonished by some of the spurious reasons people have come up with for not accepting the vaccine and frankly, some people need to delete their Facebook and other social media accounts and stop listening to some of the misguided debate in the media.

The upshot of this, is that there will still be many unprotected working age people at large in society after the mass vaccination effort concludes who will be vulnerable to coronavirus and able to facilitate the emergence of new variants through their infection.

This is a risk to all of us, vaccinated or not, and some employers will want to voluntarily minimise the health and safety risk this presents in the workplace, by introducing conditional immunity policies, or be compelled to do so by legislation.

We need to get ready for this, and communicate it in the right way.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

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