Further to the approval by EU authorities of the vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, and further to the recommendations of the French Health authorities on the vaccination programme, the French vaccine campaign against Covid-19 was launched yesterday, at the same time as in all EU countries.
In France, the Government established a specific strategy regarding the vaccine campaign. This includes targeting the most vulnerable and exposed persons first, and progressively extending the Covid-19 vaccine to the rest of the population.
French employers are now asking whether they can insist that employees are vaccinated before returning to the workplace. However, certain issues need to be considered.
First, the Covid-19 vaccination programme in France is not mandatory. According to the French Government, the vaccination campaign relies on 3 main principles: freedom of choice for patients; vaccines to be available free of charge; and patient safety. On that basis, it is ultimately the decision of the individual as to whether to get vaccinated. Therefore, even if no clear guidance has been provided by the Government, it is extremely unlikely that employees could be required to be vaccinated by their employer.
It should also be borne in mind that the Covid-19 vaccine is newly developed, and both the true effectiveness and long-term side effects remain unclear.
According to the opinion of the French Heath authority, the duration of the protection afforded by the vaccine is not yet known, and a certain number of allergic reactions have been reported (explaining why the vaccination will not be available to these people with a history of serious allergic reactions).
Public perception of the vaccine is also mixed. According to the latest surveys, only 40% of the people asked between 14th and 16th December indicated that they wanted “surely or probably” to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
Employers need to keep in mind these concerns and continue to promote all methods of ensuring employees’ health and safety including social distancing, use of face masks and sanitizing, and use of remote working as far as possible, in line with the provisions of the latest State Health Protocol.
Whilst implementing a requirement for staff to be vaccinated would clearly be contravening French law, encouragement and recommendation would be an appropriate and balanced step to take. Much like the existing annual flu jab, many employers will circulate information to their employees around the benefits of this. French authorities may also authorize employers to organize internal vaccination campaigns (just as is the case with screening campaigns), as long as they maintain the basic principles such as a guarantee of the proper performance of these vaccines and maintaining medical confidentiality.