Below we answer some key questions to clarify UK employers' legal obligations and support you in protecting your business and people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last updated: 19 October 2020.
What is the current level of restrictions in the UK?
On Wednesday 14 October, a new system of ‘tiers’ came into effect in England. The 3-tier system divides England into ‘medium’, ‘high’ and ‘very high’ alert areas, based partly on Covid-19 infection rates in relevant areas, with each tier containing increasingly more stringent local restrictions. Details of these rules are set out here. Local COVD Alert Level ‘medium’ applies across all of England, save for those areas that have specifically been designated as ‘high’ or ‘very high’. Businesses in ‘medium’ risk level areas can continue to operate, save for venues that must legally remain closed or subject to a 10pm curfew. High risk area are subject to additional restrictions on socialising, including a ban on individuals meeting anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting. In areas designated ‘very high’ risk, pubs and bars must close (unless they operate as restaurants) and people must not meet with anyone outside their household or support bubble in any setting.
More generally, since 22 September 2020, government guidance has stated that office workers should work from home, if they can do so effectively, although public sector employees in essential services should continue to go to work where necessary. Further information on the new restrictions can be found here. Details of employers’ health and safety obligations are set out further below.
Details of which businesses and venues are currently permitted to open under the current restrictions are available here. We note that these measures apply to England only – the administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland hold responsibility for their own lockdown restrictions, and as such, different timeframes apply.
On 4 July 2020, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office updated its advice against "all but essential” international travel and outlined exemptions for travel to certain countries and territories that no longer pose a high risk for British travelers. A full list of exempted destinations can be found here
. The UK has also implemented travel corridors with various countries. Individuals travelling from these countries will not be required to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival in the UK. The travel corridors vary between UK countries – please see England
and Northern Ireland
for the relevant lists. Individuals who have visited or made a transit stop in a country that is not on the list of travel corridors in the 14 days before arrival will still be required to self-isolate. On 14 August the government issued new guidance for those required to self-isolate for 14 days after returning to the UK, following the expansion of travel quarantine requirements. For this guidance see here
and for further information on employees required to self-isolate on return to the UK (and employer obligations), please see ‘For workplaces that are open, what should employers do if an employee is absent or infected?’
What are employers' obligations in respect of COVID-19?
Health and Safety
Employers have a myriad of health and safety obligations relevant to COVID-19 including those under the following legislation:
- Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974;
- The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999;
- The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992;
- The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992; and
- The Control of Substance Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002
In essence, the main duties require employers to take as much care for employees and others affected by the business as is reasonably practicable.
Where workplaces are open, government guidance states that employers should follow the "COVID-19 Secure" guidelines (published here) as soon as practicable. This includes 14 workplace-specific guidance documents for the following industries:
- Close contact services;
- Construction and other outdoor work;
- Factories, plants and warehouses;
- Heritage locations;
- Hotels and other guest accommodation;
- Labs and research facilities;
- Offices and contact centres;
- Other people's homes;
- Performing arts;
- Providers of grassroots sport and gym/leisure facilities;
- Restaurants, pubs, bars and takeaway services;
- Shops and branches;
- Vehicles; and
- The visitor economy.
On 24 June 2020, the government further updated all COVID-19 secure guidelines to reflect changes to social distancing requirements. Whilst the guidance still states that workplaces should make ‘every reasonable effort to comply with the social distancing guidelines outlined by the government’, such guidelines are now stated as ‘2m, or 1m with risk mitigation where 2m is not viable’. In accordance with the guidance, employers should consider and set out the mitigations that will be introduced in their risk assessments.
On 24 September the requirement to wear face coverings in England was expanded to cover various indoor settings and to require staff working in hospitality and retail to wear them. Staff in a wide range of venues must wear a face covering when working in a part of the premises that is open to the public, and where they come, or are likely to come, within close contact of any member of the public. The government's guidance on face coverings in England has been updated to reflect these new requirements. Previous guidance that face coverings and visors should be worn in close contact services became law on the same date. The NHS Track and Trace app was also launched on 24 September, and there is now a requirement for certain premises to collect data from customers, staff and volunteers for contact tracing purposes. Government guidance can be found here.
The five key steps which all employers should take are to:
- Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment (in line with HSE Guidance), in consultation with workers or trade unions. Employers should share the results of the risk assessment with their workforce and on their website.
- Develop cleaning, handwashing and hygiene procedures. Employers should support an increase in the frequency of handwashing and surface cleaning. Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently (paying close attention to high-contact objects like door handles and keyboards), and employers should provide handwashing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points, as well as hand drying facilities.
- Help people to work from home by discussing home working arrangements, ensuring they have the right equipment to do so (for example, remote access to work systems), including them in all necessary communications, and looking after their physical and mental wellbeing.
- Maintain two metre social distancing wherever possible. For example, by re-designing workspaces, creating one-way traffic systems, using floor markings, putting up signs, avoiding sharing workstations and switching to see visitors by appointment only if possible.
- Where people cannot be two metres apart, manage transmission risk. For example, by considering whether an activity needs to continue for the business to operate, keeping the activity time involved as short as possible, using screens or barriers to separate people from each other, using back-to-back or side-to-side working whenever possible, staggering arrival and departure times and reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’.
Notwithstanding the guidance relating to COVID-19, employers should ensure that they are taking any necessary steps to protect their employees in any event. All employers have health and safety obligations to keep employees informed about health risks that may arise in carrying out their duties and to ensure that working practices do not create undue risks to employees.
It is good practice for employers to:
- keep everyone updated on actions being taken to reduce risks of exposure to coronavirus (COVID-19) in the workplace;
- ensure employees who are in a vulnerable group are strongly advised to follow social distancing guidance;
- ensure employees who are in an extremely vulnerable group should be supported to stay at home wherever possible;
- ensure that employee contact numbers and emergency contact details are up-to-date;
- ensure that managers are able to spot symptoms of COVID-19 and are clear on any relevant processes and procedures, including sickness reporting and sick pay;
- ensure there are appropriate places to wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, and encourage all employees to do so regularly;
- provide hand sanitiser and tissues for staff;
- ensure spaces in the workplace are optimised to allow social distancing, wherever possible; and
- have visible signs in the workplace reminding employees not to attend work if they have a fever or cough, and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands (poster and leaflet materials are available here).
During this time, communication with employees is key for employers. If you haven't already done so, we further recommend employers notify employees where they can access more information if they are concerned.
As with day-to-day operation of the business, employers must be mindful not to treat anyone less favourably based on a protected characteristic such as disability, race or ethnicity.
It has become apparent that the COVID-19 outbreak is having a particular impact on employees with certain protected characteristics, including female, disabled and older employees. Accordingly, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has published guidance reminding employers that discriminatory decisions may not only result in employment tribunal claims, but also reputational damage (available here). The guidance outlines examples of how discrimination may occur in the workplace during the pandemic, and reminds employers that:
- Decisions regarding which employees are given extra hours or made redundant must not be based on protected characteristics.
- Employees should be involved in decision-making processes in a way that considers their protected characteristics. For example, employees on maternity leave should be included in workplace communications and employers should ensure that they communicate in an accessible way with disabled employees.
- Working arrangements should be set up in a way that does not disadvantage employees with certain protected characteristics (such as those in particular age groups, disabled employees, women or pregnant employees).
The guidance expressly states that individuals chosen for home working, reduced hours or furlough should be selected based on business requirements and not a protected characteristic (and this principle will also apply for selecting employees for the upcoming Job Support Scheme). Employers are also encouraged to think about ways in which disabled employees can work from home (whether in their current role or a different role) through the making of reasonable adjustments. In addition, the "COVID-19 Secure" guidelines suggest the following steps may be necessary:
- Understanding and taking into account the particular circumstances of those with different protected characteristics.
- Involving and communicating appropriately with workers whose protected characteristics might either expose them to a different degree of risk, or might make any steps you are thinking about inappropriate or challenging for them.
- Considering whether you need to put in place any particular measures or adjustments to take account of your duties under the equalities legislation.
- Making reasonable adjustments to avoid disabled workers being put at a disadvantage, and assessing the health and safety risks for new or expectant mothers.
- Making sure that the steps you take do not have an unjustifiable negative impact on some groups compared to others, for example, those with caring responsibilities or those with religious commitments.
What financial assistance is the Government providing to employers?
The UK government introduced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) in an effort to support employers whose operations have been severely affected by COVID-19. The CJRS is also known as the "furlough" scheme, and will be available until 31 October 2020.. An overview of the key features of the CJRS, is available here.
On 8 July 2020, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, outlined a ‘Plan for Jobs’ to assist the UK’s recovery from the COVID-19 outbreak. Amongst others, the following measures were announced:
- A Job Retention Bonus will be paid to help firms retain furloughed workers. Employers will receive a one-off bonus of £1,000 for each furloughed employee who is brought back to work and still employed as of 31 January 2021.
- A new Kickstart Scheme has been launched to create new, fully subsidised jobs for young people aged 16-24. Funding will be available for each six-month job placement and will cover 100% of the National Minimum Wage (for up to 25 hours a week per employee).
- Businesses will be granted a one-off subsidy of £2,000 for each new apprentice they hire under the age of 25. This is in addition to the existing £1,000 payment provided for new 16-18-year-old apprentices and those aged under 25 with an Education, Health and Care Plan.
On 24 September 2020, the Chancellor announced the Job Support Scheme (JSS), which will be introduced from 1 November 2020 and will run for six months. Under the new scheme the government will contribute towards wages of employees who are working fewer than normal hours due to decreased demand over the winter months. Employers will continue to pay the wages of staff for the hours they work - but for the hours not worked, the government and the employer will each pay one third of their equivalent salary. In order to support only viable jobs, employees must be working at least 33% of their usual hours. The level of grant from the government will be calculated based on employee’s usual salary, capped at £697.92 per month. The JSS will be open to businesses even if they have not previously used the Job Retention Scheme and will operate in parallel with the Job Retention Bonus scheme, but employees cannot be made redundant while their employer is claiming the grant. The government has published a factsheet but we await further guidance and the publication of any regulations.
An expansion to the JSS was announced on 9 October, intended to provide financial support to areas that are experiencing local lockdown restrictions. The new measures will only apply to businesses that are required to close as a result of local lockdown restrictions and workers at these affected businesses will receive two-thirds of their salary paid for by the Government, up to £2,100 a month per employee. Businesses will not be required to top-up employees’ wages but will be required to pay National Insurance and pension contributions. Businesses will only be eligible to claim the grant while they are subject to restrictions and employees must be off work for a minimum of seven consecutive days in order to be eligible.
For further information on other UK government financial support packages, including in respect of the self-employed, see our update here.
Can employers request or require information from an employee, customer or workplace visitor about potential or actual exposure to the virus?
The question of whether an employer can ask an individual to sign a declaration about where they have been, their exposure to the virus, or be required to provide health information sits firmly in the crossover between data privacy and employment.
Aside from applicable obligations under employment law, any personal data that an employer processes, including in relation to their location or their health, must also be processed in line with the applicable privacy requirements. Information about an employee's health (such as whether the individual has been diagnosed with the virus or is suffering from any symptoms) is sensitive personal data and additional requirements and obligations will therefore apply to the processing of such data. Despite the GDPR being EU-wide legislation, the position is complex from a European data privacy perspective. We set out below the position in the UK, but also have available to you our cross-jurisdictional Q&A on important HR data related questions available here. The chart includes guidance on steps employer can or must take when re-opening the workplace (including temperature checks) in respect of employees, visitors and agency workers.
On 20 March 2020, the European Data Protection Board (the European data protection advisory body, formed of representatives of national data protection authorities) (the "EDPB") published a formal statement in relation to COVID-19. In relation to whether an employer can disclose that an employee is infected with COVID-19 to their colleagues, the EDPB advises that this should be done only where necessary (e.g. in a preventive context) and where national law allows this. In such case, the concerned employees should be informed in advance and their dignity and integrity should be protected. EU national data protection authorities have also published local guidance, referred to below and in our cross-jurisdictional Q&A guide available here.
- Employers should only collect the minimum amount of information relevant for the purpose identified and must identify a lawful basis and exemption for processing such information.
Employers must also comply with the other key data protection requirements when processing the data, including key data protection principles and obligations such as transparency and accountability, and applicable security and integrity requirements. This includes informing data subjects of the purpose of the processing, relevant legal basis, who data is shared with, how long it will be retained for, whether it is transferred outside the EEA and any safeguards in place to protect its security on transfer, and providing information on the data subject's individual rights in relation to the data. The employer should also ensure that it has implement taken steps to ensure that the data collected is not kept for more longer than is needed for the relevant purpose (in this case, likely to be a few weeks at most).
- In the context of the pandemic, employers should in most cases be able to process such employee information on the basis of the general duty to provide a safe and secure working environment under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.This will be limited to information used only in the context of health and safety, e.g. decisions relating to office closures or disinfecting the workplace.Where this is the ground relied on, employers would need to show that the collection of employee information is necessary to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees, and should document their consideration of the risk to employees and any alternatives considered.Employers would need to have an appropriate policy document in place for such processing and comply with key data protection principles and obligations (such as transparency, data minimisation and security requirements).
- The UK's national data protection authority, the Information Commissioner's Office (or "ICO" for short) has stated that it understands that "resources, whether they are finances or people, might be diverted away from usual compliance or information governance work" and that it won't penalise organisations that it knows "need to prioritise other areas or adapt their usual approach during this extraordinary period" (see the ICO's guidance available here and here and our cross-jurisdictional Q&A guide here for further details).
On 8 October 2020, the government updated its guidance for employers on COVID-19 testing which can be found here
which sets out the legal obligations and best practice for employers who wish to run testing programmes for their staff.
The position regarding European data privacy rules and how they impact information in the context of COVID-19 is developing. A number of EU governments have issued further guidance and have introduced emergency legislation covering the treatment and use of employee data in these extraordinary circumstances. The position will need to be kept under review as the situation evolves and further guidance becomes available.
For workplaces that are open, what should employers do if an employee is absent or infected?
The government’s announcement on 11 May 2020 confirmed that anyone who has symptoms, however mild, or is in a household where someone has symptoms, should not leave their house to go to work. Those people should self-isolate, as should those in their households. On 28 September, the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020 came into force in England, setting out mandatory periods for self-isolation. Pursuant to these regulations, it is now an offence for an employer to knowingly permit a worker (including agency workers) to travel anywhere other than where the individual is self-isolating. This includes individuals who are required to self-isolate because they live with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. In effect, this means that employers are now responsible for stopping workers who are required to self-isolate from leaving their home in order to go to work. Any employer who fails to do so will face a fine starting at £1,000.
Employers should provide support to individuals who are self-isolating, including by allowing such employees to work from home (where possible), and considering whether the employee can be granted any alternative work that can be completed from home during the period of self-isolation.
The statutory sick pay ("SSP") regime has been temporarily amended by a series of Regulations, which entered into force on various dates between March to July 2020. As a result, qualifying employees will be entitled to SSP if they are unable to work and self-isolate because they:
As a result, qualifying employees will be entitled to SSP if they are unable to work and self-isolate because they:
(i) have symptoms of coronavirus and are staying at home for ten days (increased from seven days from 30 July 2020);
(ii) live with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus and are therefore staying at home for 14 days;
(iii) are in the second category and then develop symptoms themselves;
(iv) under the "track and trace" system effective from 28 May 2020, have both:
- been advised by a relevant notification that they have had contact with a person who at the time of the contact was infected with coronavirus; and
- are staying at home until the end of the period of 14 days beginning with the latest date on which that contact occurred, or (if sooner) until the date specified in the latest relevant notification.;
(v) are in a "linked household" or an "extended household" (in other words, a "support bubble") and someone in that household has COVID-19 symptoms;. or
(vi) have been advised to self-isolate for a period of up to 14 days before their admission into hospital for a medical procedure.
Prior to 1 August, when shielding was paused, clinically extremely vulnerable people who had been advised to shield were entitled to SSP. Government guidance updated on 15 October states that the government will only reintroduce formal shielding advice in the worst affected local areas and for a limited period of time; if such steps are taken then any clinically vulnerable people in such areas who have been advised to shield will be entitled to SSP.
Where a self-isolating employee cannot work from home, employers must ensure that they receive SSP (or give them the option to use their paid leave days if they prefer). The usual waiting period of three days before SSP becomes payable has been suspended, meaning that SSP can be paid from the first day of coronavirus-related absence. These provisions apply retrospectively from 13 March 2020. By law, medical evidence is not required for the first seven days of sickness. As at time of writing, the Government guidance is that if an individual has COVID-19 or are advised to stay at home, they can get an ‘isolation note’ by visiting NHS 111 online, rather than visiting a doctor. For COVID-19 cases this replaces the usual need to provide a ‘fit note’ (sometimes called a ‘sick note’) after seven days of sickness absence.
In the event that an employee has to take sick leave due to COVID-19, eligible employers may be able to reclaim SSP payments made to employees (which are usually payable at a rate of £95.85 per week). Under the Coronavirus Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme, the UK government will reimburse small and medium-sized employers (i.e. those with fewer than 250 employees as at 28 February 2020) for any SSP payments made to current or former employees for eligible periods of sick pay starting on or after 13 March 2020. The repayment from HMRC will cover up to two weeks of SSP. The online portal to make a claim launched on 26 May 2020 and can be accessed here.
Details of the interaction between furlough leave and sick leave/SSP are included in our overview of the CJRS which can be accessed here.
If employees are unable to work because they need to look after their children or a relative who has coronavirus, they may be legally entitled to reasonable unpaid time off (and the right not to suffer detriment as a result of invoking this right). In addition to this statutory right, you may also have a policy on leave to care for dependents, which could be triggered in these circumstances. Such employees may also be "furloughed" under the CJRS whilst the scheme remains open.
Following the recent expansion of quarantine requirements and the removal of certain exempted destinations from the list of travel corridors, the government has published new guidance regarding employees who are required to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return to the UK (available here).
- The guidance states that, where possible, employees should work from home during any period of self-isolation. Where this is not possible, employees should agree with their employer to take leave to cover any period of self-isolation.
- The guidance also states that dismissal of an employee due to self-isolation requirements should be a last resort. As such, it should only be considered when all alternative arrangements have been exhausted, e.g. requiring the employee to take annual leave or unpaid leave.
- The guidance does not provide any clarification as to whether employees required to self-isolate in such circumstances will be entitled to any pay if they are unable to work from home.
Infection in the workplace
If there is more than one case of COVID-19 associated with a particular workplace, employers should contact their local health protection team to report the suspected outbreak. The heath protection team will:
- undertake a risk assessment;
- provide public health advice; and
- where necessary, establish a multi-agency incident management team to manage the outbreak.
What are employers' obligations where offices are partially or fully closed?
In case of a temporary business closure, employers are obliged to continue paying employees' wages in full unless there are contractual provisions that can be relied upon or parties specifically agree otherwise, for example with a view to taking advantage of the CJRS or JSS (see above).
Employers may exercise their right to require employees to take paid holiday at a specific time, provided that they comply with the relevant notice requirements. Details of the interaction between "furlough" leave and annual leave are set out in our overview of the CJRS which is available here.
Can employers discipline employees during the pandemic?
ACAS has released guidance outlining that existing employment laws and the ACAS Code of Practice on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures continue to apply. The guidance notes that it is for an employer to decide if it would be fair and reasonable to start or continue a disciplinary or grievance procedure where an employee is (i) furloughed, (ii) working from home, and/or (iii) social distancing or following other public health guidelines.
The guidance also provides practical advice on disciplinary procedures for workers who are "furloughed" or working from home, and confirms that furloughed employees can participate in a disciplinary or grievance investigation or hearing, in certain circumstances. However, it is unclear how the ACAS guidance should be read alongside the requirement for employees to "cease all work" during furlough. It is our view that involvement in a disciplinary process may amount to "work" during the furlough period, and as such, following such guidance could mean that an employer is unable to claim for reimbursement of the employee's wages under the CJRS.
The guidance is available here.
Where can employers and employees access local and national advice?
Please find relevant guidance from the UK government as well as the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) here:
- Government CJRS Guidance:
- 'Check if you can claim for your employees' wages through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme' guidance - click here
- 'Work out 80% of your employees' wages to claim through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme' guidance and calculator - click here
- 'The Coronavirus Act 2020 Functions of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) Direction' - click here
See also our Coronavirus (COVID-19) page.
 The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020, the Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020, the Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020, the Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2020, and the Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020 entered into force on 13 March, 28 March, 16 April,28 May and 6 July 2020 respectively.