Rules in other industries often lack consistency. Early in the pandemic, cruise ships helped to spread the disease. The Saga cruise line, which targets elderly travellers, is now insisting that passengers produce proof of vaccination, but makes no such demand of the crew. That makes sense. The passengers will largely be drawn from the rich world, where the elderly have been first in the queue for jabs. The crew will be younger and often from poorer countries. In both cases vaccines will have been harder to obtain. However, the industry is not taking a consistent approach. Swan Hellenic is insisting on vaccines for crew, not passengers. Victory Cruise Lines has made a jab mandatory for both groups.
No vaccine is 100% effective. It is not yet clear whether people who have been vaccinated can still transmit the disease to others. So where staff come into contact with customers, companies may insist on social distancing or mask-wearing until case levels drop substantially. Even then, employees may catch the virus from each other.
Later, companies will have to consider what they should do when vaccines become more widely available. Some staff may have been unable to get a vaccine, because they have a medical condition (such as pregnancy) that excludes them. Do companies have a duty of care to protect such employees from colleagues who have refused to take the jab on principle?
In the case of most companies, Ms Boudreau says, it is very much in their interest “to reduce barriers for eligible staff to get vaccines, to have a dialogue with their staff to understand if and why they may be hesitant to get vaccinated, and to provide information and resources that may help those who are reluctant”. But that is probably as far as they can go.
There may be another phase of the pandemic with new variants resistant to current vaccines. The type of jab people have received then becomes more significant. In short, managers will face a series of tradeoffs. Their best option may be to accept the uncertainties, remain flexible, ensure the best possible hygiene standards for their staff—and hope that acquired immunity, vaccines and therapies make covid-19 no more lifethreatening than seasonal flu.