vaccine
© Tottenham Hotspur FC
A woman receives a jab at a Covid-19 vaccination clinic in London. The vaccines approved for use in the UK do not contain any animal-derived ingredients, although animal-derived materials may have been used in the production process
More than half a million vegans will be exempt if companies introduce compulsory vaccination rules in Britain because their beliefs are protected by employment law, legal experts have said.

So-called ethical veganism was ruled to be a protected characteristic at a tribunal last year, meaning employers would risk legal action if they order staff to be vaccinated.

Other people in protected categories are also likely to be protected by human rights laws, including some religious groups as well as people with certain disabilities or medical conditions.

A spokesman for Lewis Silkin, a law firm, said: "Some ethical vegans may disagree with vaccinations on the basis that they will inevitably have been tested on animals. Ethical veganism has previously been found by an [employment tribunal] to amount to a belief, capable of being protected."

The protections mean that vegans forced to get a jab could mount a claim of constructive dismissal. Equality legislation may also make it difficult for companies to demand new hires are vaccinated if they fall within one of the categories.

The warnings underline the challenge faced by the Government as it flirts with making Covid vaccines mandatory to avoid future lockdowns.

Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said on Thursday that so-called "jabs for jobs" rules - which have been adopted by several major US companies including Google and Facebook - were "smart policy".

No 10 later rowed back on his comments, saying any decision would be left to individual companies.

Although the actual doses of vaccine available in the UK contain no ingredients derived from animals, some ethical vegans - who morally object to the exploitation of animals - say the use of animal testing in the development of shots infringes upon their beliefs.

There are believed to be more than half a million vegans in the UK, although some only follow an animal-free diet.

Jeanette Rowley, a rights advocate at the Vegan Society, said she has received about 100 queries from vegans who do not wish to take the vaccine and are worried about their employment situation.

"They're very affected, psychologically, to have to confront this dilemma," she said.

Ms Rowley said many ethical vegans have chosen to take vaccines after thinking about their "wider responsibility to people".

"That's not to say the other vegans who don't want it don't have that responsibility, it's just that the dynamic for them is a lot more difficult to work out."

The Government has already introduced legislation which states that all care home staff must be vaccinated, a decision which campaigners said is likely to result in some people from protected groups having to leave their jobs.

Ms Rowley said: "The care homes have got to comply with legislation, so they don't really have a choice. But if people are going to be dismissed, then the dismissal procedures have got to be fair and reasonable."

Employment lawyers say a row looms for other companies that want to demand their staff get jabbed, sparked by a conflict between individual rights and office health and safety requirements.

There are also data protection concerns around what medical information staff are expected to provide, and whether the identities of unvaccinated staff can be shared with their colleagues.

Severe backlogs in the employment tribunal system mean it could be years before a court rules on what is allowed, with lawyers anticipating an anti-vaccination stance also will eventually face a court test.

Clare Chappell, an associate solicitor at Peacock & Co, said: "Somebody at some point who is an anti-vaxxer is going to bring a claim that an anti-vax belief is a philosophical belief.

"I think it's going to throw a lot of interesting developments into discrimination law over the coming months and years."