A fear of catching coronavirus is not a protected belief under the Equality Act 2010, an employment tribunal judge has ruled. An unnamed woman brought proceedings against her employer for alleged unlawful discrimination after she took the decision not to return to the workplace last July.

In her statement to the tribunal, the woman – known only as X – said she had ‘reasonable and justifiable health and safety concerns about the workplace surrounding Covid-19’, in particular about passing the virus on to her partner who she said was ‘at high risk of getting seriously unwell from Covid-19’.

Her employer then said they would not pay X, a decision she claimed constituted ‘discrimination on the grounds of this belief in regard to coronavirus and the danger from it to public health’.

However, in X v Y, the tribunal did not accept that ‘the claimant’s fear of contracting Covid-19 amounts to a belief’ which can be protected by section 10(2) of the 2010 act. Judge Mark Leach held that X’s fear ‘is a reaction to a threat of physical harm and the need to take steps to avoid or reduce that threat’.

‘Most (if not all) people, instinctively react to perceived or real threats of physical harm in one way or another,’ the judge said. ‘It can also be described as a widely held opinion based on the present state of information available that taking certain steps, for example attending a crowded place during the height of the current pandemic, would increase the risk of contracting Covid-19 and may therefore be dangerous.

‘Few people may argue against that. However, a fear of physical harm and views about how best to reduce or avoid a risk of physical harm is not a belief for the purposes of section 10.’

Leach accepted that the claimant’s belief was cogent and it was not disputed that it was ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’. However, he ruled that X’s belief did not meet the five criteria for a protected ‘philosophical belief’ set out by the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Grainger Plc and others v Nicholson.