A fear of contracting COVID-19 or infecting others with the virus is both worthy of respect and readily understandable. However, an Employment Tribunal (ET) has ruled in a novel case that it does not amount to a philosophical belief.
The case concerned a woman who said that her wages had been withheld after she declined to return to work in July 2020. She believed that the pandemic at that time continued to pose a serious and imminent health and safety risk. She was worried about contracting the disease in her workplace and, in particular, feared passing on the virus to her partner, who was at high risk of becoming gravely ill.
She lodged an ET complaint on the basis that the failure to pay her wages amounted to discrimination on grounds of her philosophical belief, contrary to Section 10 of the Equality Act 2010. She defined that belief as ‘a fear of catching COVID-19 and a need to protect myself and others’. The question of whether that amounted to a philosophical belief was considered by the ET as a preliminary issue.
There was no dispute that her concerns were genuine and worthy of respect in a democratic society. The ET accepted that they were intelligible, serious, cogent and cohesive. Fears about harm caused by COVID-19 were weighty and substantial and certainly not minor or trivial. They concerned aspects of human life and behaviour.
Ruling against her, however, the ET found that a fear of physical harm, and views about how best to reduce or avoid a risk of such harm, is not a belief for the purposes of Section 10. Her claimed belief was a time-specific reaction to her own desire to protect herself and others, principally her partner. Her concerns extended beyond the workplace and would only last for as long as the dangers arising from the pandemic persisted.
Rather than being a belief, her fear was an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available. The ET noted that most, if not all, people instinctively react to perceived or real threats of physical harm in one way or another. Fear of COVID-19 could 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 pandemic, may be dangerous.