'Fear of catching COVID' not a valid reason for avoiding office, tribunal rules

·4 min read
closeup of a young caucasian man at his office about to put on a blue face mask
A woman claimed she was discriminated against by her employer after she refused to return to work. (Getty)

A fear of catching COVID-19 is not a protected belief under the Equality Act, a judge has ruled after a woman claimed she had been discriminated against by her employer.

A tribunal, held in Manchester earlier this month, heard the claimant refused to return to work in July 2020 because she had a “genuine fear” of contracting coronavirus and passing it on to her partner, who was at high risk of becoming seriously unwell.

She claimed she had been discriminated against on the grounds of this belief.

Neither the woman nor her employer were named in the judgment.

closeup of a young man in an office holding a briefcase and a surgical mask in his hand
A judge ruled the woman was not discriminated against. (Getty)

In a statement given to the tribunal, the worker said her employer had refused to pay her and she suffered financial detriment as a result.

She said: “I claim this was discrimination on the grounds of this belief in regard to coronavirus and the danger from it to public health.

“This was at the time of the start of the second wave of COVID-19 and the huge increase in cases of the virus throughout the country.”

Asked what her belief was, she told the tribunal: “A fear of catching COVID-19 and a need to protect myself and others.”

Daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK. (PA)
Daily confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK up between 1 December 2020 28 December 2021. (PA)

In his ruling, employment judge Mark Leach said he accepted that the woman had a genuine fear, but did not believe it met the criteria for a philosophical belief which would be protected under Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010.

He added: “I do not find that the claimant’s fear amounts to a belief. Rather, it is a reaction to a threat of physical harm and the need to take steps to avoid or reduce that threat.

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“Most (if not all) people, instinctively react to perceived or real threats of physical harm in one way or another.

“It can also 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.

“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.”

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson introduced Plan B COVID measures in England to curb the Omicron variant, which included instructions to return to work from home if possible.

Guidance to work from home was initially introduced at the start of the pandemic last year but has been relaxed at various points, including the last two summers.

Watch: Plan B restrictions come into force as booster target brought forward

In August, chancellor Rishi Sunak said working in an office was “really beneficial” for young people and they could miss out on gaining key skills if they stayed at home.

He said: “I have spoken previously about young people in particular benefiting from being in offices.

“It was really beneficial to me when I was starting out in my career.”

Sunak added: "I doubt I would have had those strong relationships if I was doing my summer internship or my first bit of my career over Teams and Zoom.

"That's why I think for young people in particular, being able to physically be in an office is valuable."

In March, the prime minister was called irresponsible after he said people had had enough of working from home.

He said: “The general view is people have had quite a few days off, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing for people to see their way round to making a passing stab at getting back into the office.”

Andy McDonald, the former shadow employment rights and protections secretary, criticised these comments after scientists said a return to the office was premature.

He added: “He is trying appease the libertarian wing of his party on the one hand by talking about getting back to the office, then suggesting he is being cautious. He just throws out comments like this.

"You can’t ride two horses at once. It is not leadership, it is simply cavalier.”

England and Wales saw a record 129,471 confirmed COVID cases on Tuesday, 28 December, while separate figures for Scotland showed another 9,360 cases.

No data was available for Northern Ireland.

Watch: How the world could be better after COVID

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