What to do if employees in Singapore say no to Covid-19 vaccinations
Published on 19th Feb 2021
Employment law implications around compulsion, personal data and entry to premises would follow from workforce vaccine refusals
Vaccinations are a crucial part of the Singapore government's strategy to combat Covid-19 – along with safe management measures, contact tracing and testing – and have already commenced with priority given to those at greater risk of infection, such as healthcare and other frontline workers, as well as seniors. To date, around 250,000 people have received the vaccine.
All Singapore citizens, permanent residents and long-term residents (including those in Singapore on an employment or S-pass) are eligible for free vaccinations.
Current recommendations advise that pregnant women, immuno-compromised people and those under 16 should not receive the vaccine yet, until more data is available. The Health Ministry will also introduce a vaccine injury financial assistance programme, which supports those who suffer a serious adverse event that is related to the Covid-19 vaccines administered in Singapore.
Although the government strongly encourages all who are medically eligible to receive the Covid-19 vaccination, it is voluntary. This raises the question: what should employers do if employees do not wish to receive the vaccine? And what are the implications from a Singapore employment law perspective?
A compulsory vaccination policy?
As vaccination is voluntary, it is not possible to compel employees to be vaccinated against their will, in the absence of a regulatory or contractual requirement.
Under Singapore law, employers have a legal obligation to take, so far as is reasonably practicable, such measures as are necessary to ensure the health and safety of their employees at the workplace.
A relevant question to ask is whether this includes ensuring that its employees are not placed at risk by having to work alongside colleagues who have not been vaccinated. Therefore, whether or not an employer can mandate its employees to be vaccinated will hinge on whether such requirement is lawful and reasonable. This assessment will take into account the individual facts of the case, such as the nature of the employee’s role, individual health circumstances and the wider context of the severity of the pandemic in Singapore.
As things stand, given the risk of local transmission in Singapore is relatively low and that vaccination is optional (even for healthcare workers), it is unlikely for mandatory vaccinations to be considered “necessary” or “reasonable”. Therefore, it will be unfair to force individuals (especially those not in high-risk roles) to trade a low risk of infection with uncertainty about the long-term side effects of Covid-19 vaccines that are yet to be fully understood.
In his statement to Parliament on 4 January 2021, the health minister indicated that employees who choose not to be vaccinated will not be required to have a change of duties at their workplaces, unless there is a resurgence in the number of local cases. In view of the above, employers will likely be unable to impose a mandatory vaccination policy on its employees.
Further, any policy for mandatory vaccination will need to take into account health and safety considerations, such as the health risks associated with the vaccine itself for certain groups or even for individual employees. A compulsory vaccination policy could give rise to claims from employees who suffer an adverse reaction (for example, allergic reaction) to the vaccine if a link can be established.
Personal data protection considerations
Information about who has (or has not) been vaccinated and when (or why not) will constitute personal data that is protected under the Personal Data Protection Act 2012. While there is an exception to the requirement for consent to collect personal data for the purpose of managing or terminating an employment relationship, employers should still obtain employees’ specific consent to collect vaccination personal data to reduce the possibility of future disputes.
Note also that while consent is not required, employers still must notify their employees of the purposes of such collection, use, or disclosure of their data.
Refusing entry to unvaccinated employees/visitors to the workplace
There are no restrictions on the employer's ability to refuse entry to its premises.
As above, employers should consider the wider context when making any decisions. For example, if community transmissions in Singapore remain low and safe management measures at the office are adhered to, any benefits derived from refusing entry to unvaccinated employees or visitors are likely to be negligible.
What should employers do?
In conclusion, as vaccinations in Singapore are not compulsory, employees can refuse to be vaccinated. Employers should openly communicate with their employees, explain the rationale for their approach on vaccination, educate employees on the benefits of being vaccinated, and consider any feedback. Employers may also consider offering incentives to encourage their employees to be vaccinated.