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Ocado and Next have cut sick pay for unvaccinated staff who must self-isolate because of Covid exposure, the BBC has learned.

Both retailers will continue to pay full sick pay to unvaccinated workers if they test positive for the virus.

Furniture giant Ikea is also among employers making similar moves, as staff absences rise.

Next said it was an “emotive topic” but that it had to balance staff and shareholder needs.

It is unclear when Next made the change but it is believed to have been recent.

Online grocer Ocado confirmed on Thursday that it had adopted the same policy as Next this week.

Next currently pays store sales consultants and stock assistants between £6.55 and £9.21 an hour and warehouse operatives between £9.30 and £11.26 an hour.

But unvaccinated workers who are required to isolate could now receive as little as £96.35 a week – the Statutory Sick Pay minimum – unless there are mitigating circumstances.

Last month, official self-isolation guidance was relaxed for people who have been jabbed, meaning they do not need to isolate if they have been exposed to a positive case.

But there was no change to the guidance for unvaccinated close contacts, who must still self-isolate for 10 full days after their date of exposure.

What are your sick pay rights?

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is the minimum amount employers must pay, but some employers offer more than SSP – this is normally known as company or contractual sick pay.

Beth Hale, partner at employment law firm C M Murray, said claims of direct discrimination due to this kind of sick pay policy were unlikely to succeed as being opposed to vaccination was “unlikely to be a protected belief for the purposes of the Equality Act.”

“While the policy may have a disproportionate impact on those from certain ethnic or religious groups (which could give rise to a claim for indirect discrimination), an employer may well be able to justify the policy on the basis of their legitimate business needs,” she added.

She said where employers are struggling with significant staff absences because of the large case numbers, it “seemed reasonable” that they may want to take steps to encourage vaccination amongst their workforce in this way.

But she added that employers need to be “careful that policies are communicated carefully and sensitively” to avoid employee relations issues.

Many companies, including Next, faced labour shortages in 2021 and some are now are seeing mass absences due to the more infectious Omicron Covid strain.

This week it emerged that Ikea, which employs about 10,000 people in the UK, had changed its policy on unvaccinated staff who have been exposed to coronavirus.

Sick pay cuts will also be implemented at Wessex Water and in the US several major companies have started penalising un-jabbed workers.

However, the major UK supermarkets and Amazon told the BBC their policies had not changed.

Next’s move comes days after it said it was putting up its prices to offset higher wage and manufacturing costs.

The retailer said prices for its spring and summer clothing and homeware ranges would climb by 3.7% from a year earlier, while it expects a 6% rise for autumn and winter goods.

The company forecasts full-year sales to rise by 7% overall, but it warned it could face a tougher trading environment in 2022 given the financial pressures facing households, such as higher energy bills.

In October last year, Next boss Lord Wolfson said the retailer had struggled with labour shortages because workers were not available in the places needed and seasonal workers had proved difficult to recruit.

The executive, who supported Brexit, said the problem could be solved by companies hiring overseas workers and paying a “visa tax”.

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