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UAE public sector introduces mandatory COVID-19 testing

  • Market Insight 19 January 2021 19 January 2021
  • Middle East

  • Coronavirus

With the UAE government recently announcing the roll out of the Sinopharm Chinese COVID-19 vaccine to all citizens and residents, and the Emirate of Dubai rolling the first phase of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, the public sector is taking measures to ensure the safety and protection of its employees by encouraging individuals to take the vaccine and mandating PCR testing requirements for those who have not been vaccinated. In this article, we examine the latest requirements issued by the UAE government and consider the practical implications on employers and employees.

Background

On 31 December 2020 the Abu Dhabi Department of Government Support issued Circular No. 16 of 2020 to all government entities and companies in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi requiring the following measures to be taken:

  1. All employees attending the workplace to undertake a Nasal Swab Test (PCR) once every 14 days, the cost of which is to be borne by the employee.  Employees who have received the COVID-19 vaccine are exempt from such requirement; and
  2. Any outsourcing or service companies who have or will contract with government entities are required to ensure that their employees have obtained the COVID-19 vaccine in instances where they are required to attend the government entity’s workplace.

The above requirements came into force on 10 January 2020.

Following the above, Federal Circular No. 2 of 2021 was issued on the 5 January 2021, which was subsequently amended by Circular No. 3 of 2021 issued on 18 January 2021 (Circular) by the Federal Authority for Government Human Resources. The Circular implements new procedures which must be followed at federal ministries. The Circular imposes requirements on the following groups:

  1. Employees of Government Ministries & other Federal entities;
  2. Employees of outsourcing and public services companies; and
  3. Employees of advisory service companies & consultant firms.

Employees of Government Ministries & other Federal entities

The Circular mandates employees of Government Ministries & other Federal entities who have not yet taken the COVID-19 vaccine to undertake a COVID-19 Nasal Swab Test (PCR) once every 7 days, the cost of which is to be borne by the employee. Employees who are unable to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to a medical condition, as certified by a medical report, will not have to bear the cost of the PCR test. Employees who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are exempt from such requirement.

Employees of outsourcing and public services companies

Outsourcing and public services companies who have contracted with and provide their services to Federal Government entities are required to mandate their employees, who are currently attending or will be attending a Federal Government entity’s workplace on a daily basis, to undertake a PCR test once every 7 days, at the cost of the employer company. Such employees who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are exempt from such requirement.

Employees of advisory service companies & consultant firms

In instances where employees of advisory service companies & consultant firms, who have contracted with Federal Government entities to provide services, are required to visit such Federal Government’s workplace for the purpose of providing such services, the Circular mandates such Government entities to require these employees to present a negative PCR test taken within a period of 3 days prior to such visit. Those employees who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are exempt from such requirement.

The Circular urges all Federal Ministries and entities to encourage their employees to obtain the COVID-19 vaccine, where possible, and requires adherence to the above requirements from 24 January 2021.

What does this mean for employers and employees?

Whilst the above circulars do not affect the entire UAE workforce, they do give rise to many considerations, issues and questions which employers and employees will face from a practical and ethical viewpoint in the coming weeks and months; including:

  • Timing – the vaccines available are currently being administered in two separate doses.  Employees will likely need to have sufficient time off work to obtain the vaccine and possibly time off to recover from any associated side effects (where applicable).
  • Employee consent – obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine is entirely voluntary, the UAE government has not compelled the public to take the vaccine, and UAE employers cannot legally require their employees to take the vaccine, it will ultimately be the employee’s choice.  Employers may however encourage their workforce to take the vaccine.
  • Refusal to take the vaccine – there will be some employees who are unable to currently take the vaccine (or one of the vaccines) due to health conditions. There will also no doubt be employees who will not want to take the vaccine for their own personal reasons. As stated above, taking the vaccine is voluntary, mandatory vaccination is not being imposed. Employers will need to consider the implications, employees who have not been vaccinated pose on their workforce and business.  Many factors will need to be contemplated, including; the nature of the business, the ability for employees to work remotely, health and safety factors, the requirement for such employees to attend government offices, what the alternatives are, and ultimately whether employees are able to substantively carry out their role effectively. These circumstances will need to be assessed on a case by case basis in order to decide on the best course of action.   
  • Data privacy – an individual's right to privacy is upheld by the UAE Constitution and certain federal and local laws apply to the security and processing of personal data in certain circumstances, including in relation to employee records and healthcare. Federal Law No. 3 of 1987, as amended, (the Penal Code), establishes criminal offences in relation to the disclosure or use of 'secrets' (which, although not defined in the legislation, is, likely to include personal data that is not accessible to the general public) or disclosure of correspondence or telephone conversations. Employers will need to bear this in mind in instances where they are being requested to share employee health records with third parties and ensure they have obtained the employee’s consent to any disclosure of information.

What to expect in the coming months?

While there is currently no government requirement for private sector companies to require COVID-19 testing or encouragement of taking the COVID-19 vaccination, the above measures will have a direct impact on those companies who have a contract in place with government entities to provide services for such entities, and employers should stay abreast of government guidance to ensure that they are following the latest development. 

We are likely to see rapid changes in the coming months, and a greater worldwide push to be vaccinated. More locally, given that the Sinopharm Chinese vaccine is widely available, and it is likely that there will be greater availability of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the coming months. Many UAE employers will undoubtedly also wish to encourage their workforce to take the vaccine, in order to allow a gradual return to normal business practices without further interruptions and risks associated with operating a business during COVID-19 times. However, employers should take regard of the factors highlighted above in considering their course of action.

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