Why Discovery introduced mandatory vaccines in South Africa – and why some workers said ‘no’

 ·1 Dec 2021

Financial services group Discovery will implement a mandatory Covid-19 vaccination policy on 1 January 2022 for its South Africa-based employees.

When the mandate was announced on 3 September, only 22% of the organisation’s 11,000-strong employees were vaccinated. Twelve weeks later, 94% of staff have been vaccinated.

In a media briefing on Tuesday (30 November), the group said staff vaccination is now projected to reach levels greater than 97% before the peak of the fourth wave in early 2022.

Discovery said this goal would be achievable if the remaining employees who indicated that they plan to get vaccinated follow through, and if the company can effectively engage with the 330-odd employees who have formally objected.

Why introduce a mandatory vaccination policy?

“We debated a move to mandatory Covid-19 vaccination at length and sought wide-ranging input externally and internally,” said Discovery Group chief executive Adrian Gore.

“Ultimately, as a science-led organisation, we felt a strong moral imperative to implement a mandate, given the need to curb the loss of life and the indisputable evidence that Covid-19 vaccines protect people from serious Covid-19 illness and death. The mandate is at the heart of our core purpose to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives.”

Gore said that Discovery held extensive consultations with legal experts, employees and stakeholders around the policy – and the company is relying on both moral and legal justifications for its position.

In the same briefing, Lauren Salt of law firm ENS Africa said that there was a wide range of supporting legislation that could be relied on for mandatory vaccinations in South Africa, including:

  • Section 36 of the Constitution;
  • The Disaster Management Act;
  • The Occupational Health and Safety Act;
  • The Employment Equity Act and Labour Relations Act;
  • The Promotion of Equity and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act.

Gore added that Discovery’s mandatory vaccination policy has been implemented in line with the following four principles:

  • Ensuring mutual respect between employer and employee and in alignment with our values as an organisation.
  • Balancing the individual rights and liberties of all employees – vaccinated and unvaccinated – with the operational and broader stakeholder obligations of the business.
  • Regular and proactive discussion and engagement with employees to discuss and refine the implementation of the policy and to provide information and support. This includes a wide array of educational resources made available to staff in recent months, as well as being afforded the opportunity to consult with clinical experts, health professionals, and Discovery and human resources leaders as needed, to encourage staff to make informed decisions around being vaccinated for Covid-19. “The objective is to offer employees all necessary support and information so that employees vaccinate voluntarily, and the mandate becomes nothing more than a filed policy come the new year,” said Gore.
  • A structured process is in place to consider objections to vaccination based on constitutional rights and to ensure a concerted effort to explore reasonable accommodation if required.

The workers who said ‘no’ 

While Discovery’s vaccine uptake has been successful, the group did provide data on those employees who opted not to get vaccinated.

“At present, 583 employees are not vaccinated. Within this group, approximately 240 employees plan to vaccinate before the end of the year, and approximately 330 members of staff have lodged written objections to the mandatory vaccination policy,” Gore said.

Of those who objected to the vaccine, 39% cited concerns around bodily integrity, and a further 26% cited medical concerns. This included concerns about potential allergic reactions or a known allergy to a component of the vaccine.

The remaining 36% of objectors cited religious, cultural or ‘other’ reasons. This includes a violation of Constitutional rights or where certain cultures or religions may prohibit vaccination.

Discovery said it was actively exploring its options and engaging with these employees to determine where vaccination goes against a central tenet of the religious or cultural community and the employees’ sincerity of practice.

This includes relying on previous case law as well as discussion with religious scholars, bioethics experts and Constitutional law experts.

Read: Discovery modelling shows when peak of fourth Covid-19 wave will hit – as new infections surge

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