How to deal with staff forced to quarantine after returning from abroad

If your staff are taking holidays abroad, government rules mean they may have to quarantine (self-isolate) for 14 days when they return to the UK. The list of applicable destinations is changing regularly and quickly, making unexpected quarantines a real risk. The problem for employers is obvious – but what can you do about it?

Plan ahead

Ask staff to tell you in advance if they plan to travel abroad, even if the country isn't (at that point) on the EnglandWalesScotland or Northern Ireland quarantine list. This will help you to plan and make sure they're fully informed about what'll happen if and when they quarantine – when they need to contact you, what work they might be able to do, whether or not they'll be paid, and if any other arrangements are needed (e.g. staff cover).

Don't put a blanket ban on staff using annual leave to visit a country on the quarantine list, particularly if you have staff who travel abroad to visit close members of their family. Doing so is likely to be unreasonable and will risk discrimination claims.

Dealing with requests

Don't impose travel rules that treat staff unequally or inconsistently. For example, don't automatically reject leave requests from staff who can't work from home while automatically approving those from staff who can.

You have a right to refuse a request to take annual leave if you know that the staff member will have to quarantine on their return and you can't accommodate it. Remember that new rules allow up to 4 weeks of annual leave to be carried over into the next 2 holiday years. But take care – to avoid discrimination claims, ask why they're travelling abroad. It might be more important than a simple holiday.

If a country is added to the quarantine list after you've approved the employee's leave request, it's possible to cancel it. Unless their contract says otherwise, you'll need to give at least as much notice as the amount of leave being taken. Keep in mind though that it might be unreasonable to do this unless you have a strong business reason, particularly if they've incurred non-refundable holiday costs.

Options for when they return

Currently, those who need to quarantine in this situation aren't eligible to receive statutory sick pay, unless during the quarantine period they become eligible for another reason (e.g. they start showing coronavirus symptoms).

The options are (either alone or in combination):

  • Work from home: for staff who can't usually do this, consider whether there is suitable work you can give them. Note that this may mean temporarily giving them different work. You may need to provide equipment. Ideally, they should be able to do the work with minimal training. While this might seem inconvenient, you should particularly consider it if you have other staff who can ordinarily work from home, as it will help show that you're fair and consistent in your procedures.
  • Use annual leave: you can ask staff to do this if they have enough of it left. Or, you can require them to do it by giving them the required amount of notice – though since this is double the length of leave you want them to take (unless their contract says otherwise), it may not be a practical option if the destination is added to the quarantine list at short notice. And obviously, both scenarios require them to have enough annual leave left.
  • Take unpaid leave: you can do this if both parties agree, but you can't require it unless their employment contract gives you that right. Note that, depending on the circumstances, employees might be able to make use of their rights to take either unpaid parental leave or unpaid dependant care (or emergency) leave. Unsurprisingly, if they've been abroad on business, then unpaid leave isn't really a fair option.

Disciplinary action is possible in some situations, but you should take extreme care over this. The requirement to quarantine is the law, so punishing staff for complying with it is unlikely to be fair – unless they have, without good reason, failed to comply with any reasonable requirements that you've put in place. Follow your disciplinary procedure and ideally get legal advice first.

The UK government has published a guide for workers and employers.