Vet who challenged employer for flouting Covid rules was unfairly dismissed
A veterinary assistant who raised concerns about her employer’s unwillingness to create a Covid-secure workplace was unfairly dismissed, a tribunal has found. The tribunal found that despite arguing that the dismissal was for poor work performance, the employer’s evidence was “hopelessly unconvincing”.
The employee had been an assistant veterinary surgeon for only three months in March 2020 when the Government advised the UK population to avoid non-essential travel and contact and the employee asked her practice manager if she would be able to wear a mask when at work because she was asthmatic and concerned about contracting the virus.
At a staff meeting about Covid, the employer stated that it was like a “cold or flu” and was being “over-hyped by the press” but did agree that the employee could wear a mask. However, he also stated that there was “no need” for signs, notices, hand sanitiser or wipes. Following the meeting, the employee raised her concerns about the lack of measures to keep staff and clients safe.
She later attended a webinar organised by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) regarding Covid and sent what she learned to her employer in an email. The BVA recommended minimising contact with clients and colleagues, working from home where possible, and delaying routine work.
The employee asked the business owner to implement the BVA’s recommendations and also outlined her concern for friends and family and for her elderly grandmother whom she may have had to care for. Shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister announced the first lockdown and he business owner sent text messages to all the practice staff to say the practice would be open “as normal” and to come in at their normal times.
The tribunal heard that the employee felt “uneasy” the following morning at work and wanted time to consult with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), her profession’s regulatory body, because she didn’t want to breach the Veterinary Code of Practice. She told the tribunal that she avoided undertaking non-essential procedures the following day for this reason, but instead had told the employer she was not happy doing them in a “clinical sense” as a newly-qualified vet.
She spoke to the RCVS on the same day, which confirmed that depending on the circumstances, carrying out routine procedures might be a breach of the Veterinary Code of Practice. A meeting was called with the entire workforce and the employer continued to state that Covid was being “hyped up”. A nurse replied that the government was reacting with a lockdown because people are “dying” of something that is “literally [becoming] worse daily”, to which the business owner replied: “No, incorrect.”
The vet was subsequently dismissed as they felt that there was an unacceptable level of discord between her and the practice owner.
The tribunal noted the employer tried to argue that the reason for her dismissal was actually because of client complaints, lateness and completing records incorrectly. But concluded that this evidence was “hopelessly unconvincing” and that the reason for the dismissal was the employee raising a legitimate concern, which was in the public interest in a “reasonable and polite fashion” about health and safety during the pandemic. This amounted to a “Whistleblowing” complaint for which the minimum two years’ service was not required to raise a claim at the employment tribunal.
The amount of compensation has not yet been agreed but is expected to be substantial. Many employers do not realise that a whistleblowing complaint can result in a tribunal claim, with very little service. If an employee raises a complaint which may be in the public interest, it must be taken seriously!