Care worker who refused Covid-19 vaccination did not have a genuinely held belief in ethical veganism
An employment tribunal has decided in Owen v Willow Tower Opco 1 Ltd that a care home worker who refused to have a Covid-19 vaccination did not have a genuinely held belief in ethical veganism and so was not protected under section 10 of the Equality Act 2010 (EqA 2010).
The claimant was a bank staff worker in a care home. In June 2021, the care home decided that all staff should be vaccinated against Covid-19. In August 2021, the claimant (who had not been vaccinated) raised a grievance. She explained that, as she followed a vegan diet, she believed she was exempt from the vaccine. She also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the vaccine and unknown side effects. She was referred to occupational health, who confirmed that there was no health condition preventing her from being vaccinated and, consequently, her grievance was not upheld. When the legal requirement for staff in CQC registered care homes to be vaccinated came into force the claimant was dismissed. She later brought a claim for unfair dismissal and religion or belief discrimination.
At a preliminary hearing, the tribunal did not accept that the claimant held a belief in veganism to the extent outlined in Grainger plc and others v Nicholson (which sets out the criteria that a belief needs to satisfy in order to gain protection under the EqA 2010). Although the tribunal accepted that the claimant followed a vegan diet, she failed to explain when she started having a belief in ethical veganism and how she had modified her life to follow her belief. The claimant's position also seemed to be inconsistent with the extent of the belief described in Casamitjana v League Against Cruel Sports (where ethical veganism was held to be a protected belief) in that she used products in the care home that were not vegan (although she did wear gloves when handling them). In addition, the tribunal found that her main criticisms of the vaccine appeared not to be connected to veganism, but that it was experimental and may contravene health and safety legislation. As a result, her discrimination claim was dismissed.
Take note: The decision in Owen can be contrasted with that in Casamitjana, a case in which ethical veganism was held to be capable of being a philosophical belief. In that case, the Employment Judge noted that the individual's ethical veganism was not just about choices of diet, but about choices relating to what he wore, what personal care products he used, his hobbies and the job he did. In Casamitjana the claimant's beliefs were protected, but in this instance they weren't. In addition, there was evidence in Owen that it was the health and safety aspects of the vaccine rather than any concerns arising from the claimant's veganism which formed her main reservation.