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ET rules fear of catching Covid not philosophical belief

View profile for Sue Hatton
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A recent Employment Tribunal considered a claim from a woman who refused to return to work for fear of catching Covid-19.

The tribunal found that her fear of catching Covid 19 and her need to protect herself and others is not a philosophical belief for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010. Employment Judge Mark Leach in Manchester said this meant she was not discriminated against on the grounds of religion or belief when she refused to go to work.Content

In July 2020, the unnamed claimant decided not to return to work on the grounds of health and safety.

She told the tribunal: “I had reasonable and justifiable health and safety concerns about the workplace surrounding Covid-19, and I was also very worried about the increasing spread of the virus.

“I had a genuine fear of getting the virus myself, and a fear of passing it on to my partner (who is at high risk of getting seriously unwell from Covid-19).”

Her employer withheld her wages, saying he did not consider her belief reasonable.

Her case included a complaint of unlawful discrimination and Judge Leach looked at whether her fear of catching Covid 19 and a need to protect herself and others was, as she claimed, a protected philosophical belief.

He held that this failed to meet the requirement that it must be a belief and not “an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available”.

Judge Leach said her fear did not amount 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. Most (if not all) people, instinctively react to perceived or real threats of physical harm in one way or another.”

The fear could 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”, the judge continued.

“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 [of the Equality Act 2010].”

Employers will be relieved by this decision since a ruling in favour of this claimant might have opened up the floodgates for similar claims.

If you need advice on Covid related employment issues, contact our team on 01827 317070.