The Employment Tribunal has recently held that a claimant’s belief in a fear of catching COVID-19 and a need to protect herself and others does not amount to a philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010.

The Claimant argued that her decision not to return to the workplace in July 2020 was because she had reasonable and justifiable health and safety concerns about the workplace as a result of COVID-19 and was worried about the spread of the virus.  She had a genuine fear of getting the virus and passing it to her partner, who is considered high risk.  She therefore brought a claim for discrimination when her employer stopped paying her wages when she refused to return to work.

The Employment Tribunal held that the Claimant’s fears did not amount to a belief but rather it was a reaction to a threat of physical harm and the need to reduce that threat.  They could be described as a widely held opinion based on the present state of information available.  In addition, the Employment Tribunal found that, because the Claimant’s fear was about protecting herself and others (in particular, her partner), it did not satisfy the requirement that the belief must be about weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour.

This case is helpful for employers who want their staff to return to the office now the current work from home guidance has been lifted by the Government.  However, employers should still consider any objections about returning to work or other post-pandemic workplace issues on a case-by-case basis because there remains the risk of other types of discrimination claims.  These discrimination risks may be particularly relevant in the context of the approach employers decide to take to vaccinations and access to the workplace, in particular, whether mandating proof of vaccination, for example, is an acceptable condition for access to the workplace.  For further information, please see our Employer Guide on Vaccines: COVID-19: Employer Guidance on Vaccines | Perspectives & Events | Mayer Brown