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The state of current 'protected characteristics'

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

By Philip Mahboobani

What are “protected characteristics”?

The Equality Act states that employees and workers should be protected from discrimination against certain protected characteristics, such as gender or religious beliefs. Recently, there have been calls to expand the list of protected beliefs, particularly in light of whether veganism, climate change and other philosophical beliefs merit protection. This has led to now, where the Tribunal considered whether fear of catching Covid-19 should be considered a philosophical belief.

Should the list be expanded?

To analyse whether the list should be expanded to include these beliefs, one must assess the current criteria for protected characteristics in the UK. For this, the belief must be genuinely held, not an opinion on the present state of information and a substantial aspect of human life. It must also attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness cohesion, and importance that is worthy of respect in a democratic society.

The Tribunal rightly found the “fear of catching Covid-19” does not satisfy the second and third criteria stated above. This is because it cannot be described as a belief but, rather, a reaction to a threat of harm and the steps taken to reduce the harm as such. Furthermore, it can be described as an opinion held by the current present state of information. Moreover, in the case to which this was debated on, the Claimant had only relied on this belief in respect to their workplace, rather than in wider terms such as attending other locations.

Effects of this decision

As such, there will be significant consequences for employers and employees alike, namely, the staff can be encouraged back into work easily. However, this has attracted some conflict, and it has been argued that fears caused by Covid-19 should be considered as a substantial aspect of human life and behaviour. It remains to be seen whether the current list of protected characteristics will be expanded upon in light of recent judgements in relation to ethical veganism being considered a protected belief. In turn, this will have major ramifications across the business world of the UK.


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