Our general Q&A was written on 18 March 2020 and last updated on 6 January 2021. It covers the most regular questions our employment law team are being asked about Coronavirus such as issues relating to; self-isolation, sickness absence and pay, annual leave entitlement and contractual issues such as lay-off and rescinding offers of employment. Please also see our separate Q&A relating to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
England has entered national lockdown as of 5 January 2021. This new period of lockdown, which is due to be reviewed by the government on 15 February 2021, is similar to that which was implemented in March 2020; with the closure of schools and the requirement to stay at home, save lives and protect the NHS.
We have updated our Q&A with the latest guidance published by the government.
As always, good communication is key. It is difficult in these unprecedented times to provide reassurance, but it is important to refer employees to official sources of information and explain that businesses are following the current government advice particularly in light of the high infection rates.
If employees are returning to work following a period of absence or homeworking, it is advisable to communicate to them that risk assessments have been carried out and measures put in place to protect their health and safety whilst at work. Communicating the specific measures that have been put in place is likely to assist in allaying possible fears workers may have about returning to work.
https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/coronavirus-covid-19-uk-government-response is a good link to be aware of and to send to all employees. It covers all the current guidance, which changes on a regular basis.
Please also see:
Public Health England and BEIS:
World Health Organisation:
The current guidance is set out here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay-at-home
From 5 January 2021:
A ‘reasonable excuse’ includes:
Work – you can only leave home for work purposes where it is unreasonable for you to do your job from home, including but not limited to people who work within critical national infrastructure, construction or manufacturing that require in-person attendance
Volunteering – you can also leave home to provide voluntary or charitable services.
Essential activities – you can leave home to buy things at shops or obtain services. You may also leave your home to do these things on behalf of a disabled or vulnerable person or someone self-isolating.
Education and childcare – You can only leave home for education, registered childcare, and supervised activities for children where they are eligible to attend. Access to education and children’s activities for school-aged pupils is restricted. See further information on education and childcare. People can continue existing arrangements for contact between parents and children where they live apart. This includes childcare bubbles.
Meeting others and care – You can leave home to visit people in your support bubble ( if you are legally permitted to form one), to provide informal childcare for children under 14 as part of a childcare bubble (for example, to enable parents to work, and not to enable social contact between adults), to provide care for disabled or vulnerable people, to provide emergency assistance, to attend a support group (of up to 15 people), or for respite care where that care is being provided to a vulnerable person or a person with a disability, or is a short break in respect of a looked-after child.
Exercise – You can continue to exercise alone, with one other person or with your household or support bubble. This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area. You should maintain social distancing
Medical reasons – You can leave home for a medical reason, including to get a COVID-19 test, for medical appointments and emergencies.
Harm and compassionate visits – you can leave home to be with someone who is giving birth, to avoid injury or illness or to escape risk of harm (such as domestic abuse). You can also leave home to visit someone who is dying or someone in a care home (if permitted under care home guidance), hospice, or hospital, or to accompany them to a medical appointment.
Animal welfare reasons – you can leave home for animal welfare reasons, such as to attend veterinary services for advice or treatment.
Communal worship and life events – You can leave home to attend or visit a place of worship for communal worship, a funeral or event related to a death, a burial ground or a remembrance garden, or to attend a wedding ceremony. You should follow the guidance on the safe use of places of worship and must not mingle with anyone outside of your household or support bubble when attending a place of worship. Weddings, funerals and religious, belief-based or commemorative events linked to someone’s death are all subject to limits on the numbers that can attend, and weddings and civil ceremonies may only take place in exceptional circumstances.
You can spread the virus even if you don’t have symptoms. You should minimise time spent outside your home. It is against the law to meet socially with family or friends unless they are part of your household or support bubble. You can only leave your home to exercise, and not for the purpose of recreation or leisure (e.g. a picnic or a social meeting). This should be limited to once per day, and you should not travel outside your local area.
You can exercise in a public outdoor place:
Public outdoor places include:
Support and Childcare bubbles
You have to meet certain eligibility rules to form a support or childcare bubble. This means not everyone will be able to form a bubble. A support bubble is a support network which links two households. You can form a support bubble with another household of any size only if you meet the eligibility rules. It is against the law to form a support bubble if you do not follow these rules. You are permitted to leave your home to visit your support bubble (and to stay overnight with them).
However, if you form a support bubble, it is best if this is with a household who live locally. This will help prevent the virus spreading from an area where more people are infected. If you live in a household with anyone aged under 14, you can form a childcare bubble. This allows friends or family from one other household to provide informal childcare. You must not meet socially with your childcare bubble, and must avoid seeing members of your childcare and support bubbles at the same time.
Further details are set out here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/making-a-childcare-bubble-with-another-household
Where homeworking is being newly introduced, or expanded, the employer should ensure that the health and safety implications have been considered and that the necessary infrastructure is in place. https://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/ck1.pdf is a useful resource for a workstation assessment which can be carried out by the employee themselves.
The full list of businesses which should close is set out here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/national-lockdown-stay-at-home#businesses-and-venues
As the current government guidelines suggest, it is vital to try to minimise infection risk, which means preventing employees bringing coronavirus into the workplace where it can spread. It appears that people can be infectious without symptoms so staying at home and practising social distancing when it is not possible to stay at home is the current advice (see above for guidance on when going out is permitted).
Certainly, all workers should be instructed to follow the Government’s current self-isolation guidance. If a worker displaying those symptoms attends work, they should be immediately sent home to self-isolate – this is a reasonable management instruction due to the employer’s duty to protect the health and safety of other employees. Employers ought to consider removing barriers to people self-isolating, for example:
If your business is one that is permitted to keep operating but, for practical reasons relating to the nature of the work, it cannot be performed from home, then employers will be responsible for ensuring that they provide a safe place of work for employees. Employers will need to undertake risk assessments and ensure that, so far as possible, social distancing is maintained. Employers will need to consider whether Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is required and, if so, train employees on applying PPE.
Please see further below in relation to additional considerations for shielding employees and those employees who are at high risk.
SSP is payable if employees are:
People falling into the extremely vulnerable group include:
Employees who have an underlying health condition listed above, are at very high risk of severe illness as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19), requiring admission to hospital. These employees have been strongly advised to stay at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for a period of at least 12 weeks. Such employees are likely to have received a “shielding” letter from the Government or a hospital advising them of the risks and advising them to remain at home.
Shielding employees should, therefore, be permitted to work from home wherever possible.
It may be possible to furlough these employees, please see our Q&A on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for further information.
If shielding employees are not furloughed, and cannot work from home, employers would need to consider the position extremely carefully before requiring shielding employees to attend the workplace. To do so could breach the employer’s duty of care to the employee and/or constitute a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. This could lead to claims for constructive dismissal, disability discrimination and/or personal injury.
The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 came into force on 16 April and provide that a person is deemed to be incapable of work if they are unable to work because they fall within the extremely vulnerable category and have been advised to shield. Therefore, they would be eligible for SSP. However, if they are unable to attend the workplace because the employer cannot provide a safe place of work, which may be extremely difficult for such employees, they should receive full pay.
The government has stated that anyone in the following categories are “strongly advised” to work from home:
As above, if working from home is possible, then this should be facilitated.
If it is not possible for the work to be performed from home, employers would need to consider the position extremely carefully before requiring such employees to attend the workplace. To do so could breach the employer’s duty of care to the employee and/or constitute a breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. This could lead to claims for constructive dismissal, disability discrimination and/or personal injury.
If high-risk employees are not symptomatic, nor is a member of their household, they will not be entitled to receive SSP if they are unable to work from home but do not attend the workplace. However, if they are unable to attend the workplace because the employer cannot provide a safe place of work, they should receive full pay.
In relation to pregnant employees, employers have additional duties to protect their health and safety. These include suspending the employee on full pay if the employer is unable to provide suitable alternative work for the employee. This may arise if the employer is unable to provide a safe place of work. See further on this below.
It may be possible to furlough high-risk employees. Please see our Q&A on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for further information.
No. The current guidance on shielding states that those who live with individuals classed as "extremely vulnerable" or high risk can continue to work (if they cannot work from home), take daily exercise or shop for essentials.
The Government guidance to those in this situation is below:
If an employee chooses to remain at home and not work, they are not entitled to SSP.
It may be possible to furlough such employees, please refer to our Q&A on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for further information.
No – however, the guidance is that only those whose work cannot be performed from home can continue to attend work, if the business is permitted to continue operating (see above). Employers must provide a safe place of work and are required to ensure that social distancing guidance can be followed in respect of employees who are attending work.
If the work undertaken is critical to the COVID-19 response, then employees may be classed as key workers. Key workers are required to continue working, special provision has been made with schools and childcare providers to allow their children to attend, so that key workers can work.
A full list of critical workers is set out here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision
A worker who chooses to self-isolate in circumstances where none of the above requirements are met (e.g. because they are worried) is not entitled to statutory or contractual sick pay.
If an employee refuses to attend, you would need to speak to the employee concerned about the specific reason that the employee is concerned about attending work before deciding whether to take disciplinary action, or withhold pay in light of the employee's refusal.
It is important to remember that some people with health conditions are at higher risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19 (see previous response on “extremely vulnerable” employees). An employer insisting on employees attending work, or refusing to pay sick pay, or even dismissing employees due to absence in the current climate, could risk claims. In addition, if the reason the employee self-isolates is because of a disability that puts them into a high-risk category, such as an auto-immune disease or a respiratory condition, disability discrimination issues may arise.
If there is no disability, and the public health advice is such that the employee could reasonably be asked to continue to attend work, then it is possible that the employee could be investigated for misconduct in terms of their refusal to follow a reasonable management instruction, and their unauthorised absence.
Due to the fear that people have in relation to the current healthcare crisis we would recommend that employees who do not attend work are not dismissed, as it is likely that any dismissal may be found by a Tribunal to not be within the band of reasonable responses open to an employer. If the absence is unauthorised then the employee would likely not be entitled to pay as they are not willing to attend work.
This depends on the precise wording of any contractual sick pay provisions in the contract. It is tempting for employers to regard a non-symptomatic worker in self-isolation as not “actually sick” and only pay SSP due to the government stance. However, it is very difficult to argue that a worker is not entitled because they are not symptomatic, in circumstances where SSP regulations ‘deem’ them to be ‘incapacitated’ in the circumstances outlined above.
An employee’s right to pay where their employer sends them home from work will depend upon the precise circumstances of that decision. Where the employee is able to continue to work from home then, subject to any contractual provision to the contrary, they will continue to be entitled to their normal rate of pay.
If working from home is not possible, and an employee is suspended by their employer on health and safety grounds, because of a possible risk of infection which does not fall within the government’s self-isolation advice, it is likely that they have the right to continue to receive full pay on the basis of the employer’s implied duty to pay wages.
All pregnant employees who can work from home, should be working from home. For those that cannot, and are required to attend work, there are some key steps that the employer must take.
An employer is required to carry out a risk assessment for all pregnant employees. The risk assessment should include the risk of harm due to any “biological agent”. As the coronavirus would be classed as “biological”, the employer is specifically required to assess the risk.
The employer should ensure that the guidelines on social distancing can be rigorously followed. For example, being two metres away from colleagues, hand washing facilities etc. Where this is not possible, the pregnant employee should be suspended from work on full pay.
If a woman is absent wholly or partly due to pregnancy in the last four weeks of pregnancy, the maternity leave will automatically commence.
It may be possible to furlough pregnant employees, please see our Q&A on the CJRS.
Whilst an employee can refuse to attend work if they have a reasonable belief that their health and safety is in danger, whether or not their refusal is reasonable will take into consideration factors such as; the employee’s own health; whether they are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they contract Covid-19; and the steps their employer has put in place to mitigate the danger of contracting Covid-19 at work.
If an employee is subsequently dismissed for refusing to attend work in these circumstances, they may be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal.
The normal rules on taking annual leave under the Working Time Regulations 1998 will continue to apply. It is possible to require employees to take annual leave at times dictated by the employer, provided that they are given the required level of notice. The notice required is twice the amount of time that you require employees to take. For example, if you require an employee to take five days annual leave you must give them 10 days’ notice.
Emergency legislation has been passed to relax the restriction on carry over of the four weeks’ annual leave derived from the Working Time Directive (WTD), these changes took effect immediately. The Working Time (Coronavirus) Amendment Regulations 2020 allow workers to carry over any untaken WTD leave where it was not “reasonably practicable” for the employee to take it in the leave year “as a result of the effects of coronavirus (including on the worker, the employer or the wider economy or society)”.
There is no firm guidance on what circumstances may be regarded as not reasonably practicable to take annual leave but an obvious example (and the likely purpose of the new legislation) is where the worker is required to be at work and had no opportunity to take paid holiday (such as with certain key workers or employees who are vital to the operation of the business), or where the employee is self-isolating or sick and does not elect to take their annual leave during sickness absence.
Carried over leave may be taken in the two years immediately following the leave year in which it accrued. Employees who have carried over leave can take this whenever they like within the following two years unless the employer has “good reason” to refuse such request. If the employee’s employment terminates before they have chance to use the carried over annual leave, then they must be paid in lieu of any untaken leave on termination.
It is important to note that the above does not apply to the additional 1.6 weeks’ annual leave derived under domestic legislation, nor any enhanced contractual annual leave entitlement over and above the minimum 5.6 weeks.
The position in relation to accrual of and carry over of this annual leave entitlement will depend on the employment contract wording and/or separate agreement between the employer and employee. Many employers have specified in employment contracts that WTD leave is deemed to be taken first in any leave year and this will pose a problem for carry over in accordance with the new right to carry over WTD leave. In the event that you are allowing carry over of annual leave under the new right, and also have contractual provisions to the effect that WTD leave is deemed to be taken first, please seek legal advice.
Employees may wish to take annual leave during sickness absence (or self-isolation) instead of being on SSP or nil pay. Workers are entitled to take statutory annual leave during sickness absence but may not be compelled by the employer to do so – they would have to agree.
An employee can take holiday during a period of furlough, please refer to our Q&A relating to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme for further guidance on the issues relevant to the taking of annual leave if an employee is furloughed.
If your business is within the categories identified in the Government’s list (see above), you are required to close your business.
For other businesses, the Acas guidance advises that if someone with COVID-19 comes into a workplace, the workplace does not necessarily have to close.
In England, the local Public Health England health protection team (HPT) will advise and will carry out a risk assessment.
Advice on cleaning of communal areas such as offices or toilets will also be given by the HPT.
The majority of working parents are likely to have to juggle childcare and home-working in light of the closure of schools and nurseries, and the Government’s guidance for all employees to work from home where possible. Most employers are willing to agree to more flexible arrangements and expectations in the current circumstances and measures could include working different hours or days, and reducing work targets.
However, employees with very young children, especially if they are single parents, may not be able to work at all. It is possible to furlough such employees – please see our Q&A on the CJRS for further information.
First, check if the contract contains a contractual provision, which allows the employer to temporarily lay people off work (or reduce working hours). If there is a contractual right to lay off, then the employer should comply with the requirements of the provision (e.g. give the required notice of lay-off to staff and/or consult with any recognised trade unions if required).
Employees with one month’s service, who are laid off, may be entitled to claim a Statutory Guarantee Payment (SGP) on up to five workless days in a three-month period. To calculate SGP, the company must multiply the regular hours that the employee would have worked on the ‘workless day’ by the ‘guaranteed hourly rate’. The current maximum daily limit of SGP is £29 (subject to the maximum of five days or £145 in any three months).
Employees can claim a redundancy payment from the company if they are laid off for:
If there is no contractual right to lay staff off, the employer faces two main choices:
If there is no lay-off provision in the contract, any lay-off without agreement would be a fundamental breach of contract, an unlawful deduction of wages and could lead to various employment claims.
The Government has extended the the CJRS, or furlough scheme to 30 April 2021, which can enable an employer to claim up to 80% of an employee’s normal salary up to a maximum of £2,500. Please see our Q&A on the CJRS for information on using furlough as an alternative to lay off or redundancy.
If you have offered employment to individuals to start on a set date and they have accepted that offer, you are contractually bound to honour that obligation. However, in the circumstances, it may be possible to agree with the individuals that you push back their start date. If you are able to agree this, then you have effectively varied the contract (offered and accepted) to start on the new date.
The problem you are likely to have is that you will probably not be able to set a new start date while things are still so uncertain, so effectively you are asking an individual to agree to delay their start date indefinitely. If they do not agree to vary the start date then you would need to consider your alternative options.
If you allowed the employment to commence on the start date they would then potentially fall into one of three categories:
The alternative option to consider is whether you would want to retract the offer of employment. You would need to check the terms of the contract to see what notice you are required to give to terminate the contract. You would also need to be careful that you do not inadvertently trigger any potential discrimination claims by treating people with any protected characteristics differently.
There is a potential for the employee to claim breach of contract flowing from this course of action. In most cases where you pay notice entitlement, the risk of claims would be low but, if the employee has left their current job to start with you, and then you pull the job offer and they suffer losses as a result, this could lead to a claims risk, especially in the current climate where other jobs may be more difficult to come by.
Once the employee has accepted the offer, a contract of employment will be in existence. In these circumstances, the only way for the employer to terminate the contract is to give the employee the notice to which they are entitled under the contract. Failure to do so will be a breach of contract. The employee's loss in respect of such a breach of contract will normally only begin to accrue after the date on which their employment was due to start (because the employee will not generally be entitled to any benefits before they start work). Therefore, if the employee has a four-week notice period, but the employer wrongfully terminates the contract one week before the employee was due to start work, damages will normally be limited to three weeks' earnings.
It will not be possible to furlough any employees whose employment commenced (or was due to commence) after 19 March 2020. Please see the Q&A on the CJRS for further information.
With the good news that a number of vaccinations are being rolled out and will potentially gather speed in implementation in 2021, most employers will be wanting to ensure all staff members are safe and able to return to work. However, under current UK legislation, employers cannot force staff to undergo vaccination.
It is a similar situation to that of the flu vaccinations. Whilst employers can encourage it, there is no requirement on the employee to have the vaccination.
While employers may believe they can make the vaccination compulsory via a contractual clause, this does not take into account various discrimination claims which may arise (as well as human rights infringements) from those employees who have religious and personal reasons as to why they would not have the vaccinations. There is also the risk of a constructive unfair dismissal claim if an employee resigns as a result of the pressure/compulsion to vaccinate.
Once further information is available, employers are encouraged to inform employees of the option to vaccinate and provide information about the availability of the vaccine. Of course, this will all depend on how the vaccination is rolled out and the priority list which was published by the government, see https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/priority-groups-for-coronavirus-covid-19-vaccination-advice-from-the-jcvi-30-december-2020.
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