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The ethical and reputational minefield of ‘the Vaccine’

By Anthony Hughes
10 December 2020

By Anthony Hughes

Last week we received the news that the UK’s regulator was the first in the world to approve Pfizer’s vaccine for general use. Aside from the fact, that this might be the beginning of the end of the coronavirus scourge, it was politically advantageous for the government with the possibility of a hard Brexit looming large on the horizon.  It reminds the international community of the UK’s leadership in science and R&D, and an important signal that the UK is open for business either way.  This week the process of immunising the most at-risk got underway in earnest with 90 year-old Margaret Keenan becoming the first person in the world to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

The news of various vaccines coming on the market in recent months sparked inevitable discussions in households and the media alike about who should get the vaccine first. There are some obvious answers to this question that probably everyone can agree on, but once you have exhausted those, the ground becomes increasingly uncertain and the answers more nuanced. I have heard some sound reasoning for many different points of view on the subject and I am no clearer myself on what the answers are. However, one thing I am sure of is, it will come with some serious reputational consequences for anyone who gets the answer wrong.

In the UK at least, the government has already decided in what order various segments of the population will receive the vaccine. Furthermore, it is to be tightly controlled by the NHS, meaning that it will not be available to private individuals on the open market for the time being. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at -70C which means that very few private health institutions will have the infrastructure to house the vaccine even if it were available to them.  

So whether you agree with the Government’s approach or not the situation is pretty clear cut…for now. However, as time goes by, different vaccines become available, and the most at-risk categories have been vaccinated, the politics of the vaccine will get increasing complex particularly for businesses.

Enterprises will want their employees to be vaccinated so that they can get back to business as usual, meaning we may well see a scramble to get vaccines from all quarters. But this will present all kinds of ethical and reputational issues for companies if they do not think carefully about their position.  This will be particularly challenging for international organisations with employees at the mercy of domestic vaccination programmes.

Current UK health and safety legislation states that employers have a duty to protect the health of employees, anyone on their premises and anyone else affected by the business. Existing vaccination guidelines state that if a risk assessment finds a risk of exposure to biological agents and effective vaccines exist, employers should offer to provide immunisations to those who are not already immunised, however, employees are at liberty to refuse immunisation.

For the antivaxer’s or those who just want to get on with it the answer is clear cut, but there is likely to be a large swathe of the population who are understandably nervous of taking a vaccine that has had such an incredibly short development time despite its proclaimed effectiveness. A typical vaccine takes around 10 years to develop, and even then, some of the longer-term effects of vaccines are sometimes still unknown. The current COVID-19 vaccines have only been in development for around 10 months.

How businesses communicate their stance on vaccinations to their employees and other stakeholders will be crucial. At the beginning of the pandemic many companies were publicly shamed and took big reputational hits for not behaving responsibly and moving to safeguard their employees, no doubt the same will be true of the vaccination process. Companies will have to be sensitive to a whole range of views on the issue. Many people will feel pressure to take a vaccine so that they can get back to pre-covid working practice, even if they don’t want to.

To enter some countries around the world, you need to present a yellow fever vaccination certificate, will people be treated differently and have different levels of access to goods, services, places and even employment options depending whether or not they have been vaccinated or not? How will companies choose which vaccine to give their employees? Who is to blame and what happens if a vaccine given to staff that has hitherto unknown side effects? If only limited vaccines are available who in your company gets the vaccines first?  Management ahead of workers in a factory…?!  Will there be a cultural divide between colleagues who have and have not been vaccinated? The list of questions goes on and on…

One thing we have learned during this crisis is that regular, open and considered communication with your stakeholders (both internal and external) is crucial and there are likely to be significant reputational consequences for companies who do not take this potential minefield and how they communicate about it seriously.