COVID-19 FAQs (updated 24/3/20)

The situation with coronavirus (COVID-19) is rapidly evolving. The following advice applies to the most common questions we have received regarding its impact in the workplace.

Please note that these responses are provided based on current understanding. They are subject to review as official guidance changes.

The guidance below should be read in conjunction with official advice and we recommend you also refer to the following:

New rules on staying at home and away from others (since 23/3/20)

The single most important action we can all take, in fighting coronavirus, is to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives.

When we reduce our day-to-day contact with other people, we will reduce the spread of the infection. That is why the government introduced three new measures on 23 March 2020:

1. requiring people to stay at home, except for very limited purposes
2. closing non-essential shops and community spaces
3. stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public.

Every citizen must comply with these new measures. The relevant authorities, including the police, will be given the powers to enforce them – including through fines and dispersing gatherings.

These measures are effective immediately. The government will look again at these measures in three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows this is possible.

You should only leave the house for one of four reasons:

  1. Shopping for basic necessities​, for example, food and medicine, which must be as infrequent as possible.
  2. One form of exercise a day, for example, a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household.
  3. Any medical need​, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
  4. Travelling to and from work​, but only where this absolutely cannot be done from home.

Frequently asked questions

1. Will I get paid if I have to self-isolate?
ACAS sets out that employees and workers must receive any Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) due to them if they need to self-isolate because:

  • they have coronavirus
  • they have coronavirus symptoms, for example, high temperature or new continuous cough
  • someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms
  • they’ve been told to self-isolate by a doctor or NHS 111.

If you are unwell, the normal sickness absence procedure and entitlements will apply.

The following is an extract from the government announcement made on 11 March about the payment of SSP.

  • Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will now be available for eligible individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 or those who are unable to work because they are self-isolating in line with Government advice. This is in addition to the change announced by the Prime Minister that SSP will be payable from day 1 instead of day 4 for affected individuals.
  • People who are advised to self-isolate for COVID-19 will soon be able to obtain an alternative to the fit note to cover this by contacting NHS 111, rather than visiting a doctor. This can be used by employees where their employers require evidence. Further details will be confirmed shortly.
  • Those who are not eligible for SSP, for example, the self-employed or people earning below the Lower Earnings Limit of £118 per week, can now more easily make a claim for Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance.

The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 came into force on 13 March. 

They provide that SSP will be available to anyone isolating themselves from other people in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus, in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England, NHS Scotland or Public Health Wales.

Employers who offer higher levels of sick pay will need to abide by their contracts. Those who do not, can choose to offer a higher level of sick pay. ACAS and other agencies are encouraging this approach to ensure that staff are not tempted to continue working when they should be at home.

Guidance on self-isolation is available on the gov.uk – Public Health England website.

2. Can I work remotely if I need to self-quarantine?
New rules as of 23 March require all staff to work from home unless this absolutely cannot be done from home.

If you are self-isolating you must stay at home.

If you are unwell, the normal sickness absence procedure should be followed.

If you are well, you can work from home. Employers should identify any support, equipment and training that might be required to enable effective and safe homeworking (for example, videoconferencing, Office365 suite etc).

Reference should be made to relevant policies and procedures such as Homeworking Policy and Data Protection Policy.

3. What if my role cannot be performed from home?
Not everyone will be able to carry out their usual job from home. Employers should consider what tasks these employees could possibly do from home, for example, administration, project work etc. 

In the event they cannot work from home, current government guidance is clear that if an employee is advised to self-quarantine by NHS 111 or a GP, they are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay as a minimum, even if they do not show any symptoms.

Note that ACAS has recommended that employers pay the 14-day period at full pay to discourage staff coming to work if they should be self-isolating. It is up to the employer to decide whether they will adhere to this recommendation.

4. Can I take time off if my child cannot stay at school/nursery (that is, neither parent is classed as a Critical Worker)?
Employees are entitled by law to unpaid time off to help manage emergency situations to deal with dependents. This is usually short-term (for example, one or two days) to make alternative arrangements. 

An employers’ policy may include entitlement to some paid time off which could apply in these circumstances in the short term.

If staff require additional time to care for a dependent with no alternative care arrangements, consider whether they would be able to take annual leave, accrued time off in lieu (TOIL) or unpaid leave, including parental leave. 

See here for a list of categories of critical workers.

5. Can I continue to work from home if I am looking after a child/dependent(s)?
Depending on the circumstances, the member of staff may still be able to work from home even with dependents at home. Although this is not recommended for a permanent homeworking arrangement, in the current situation, more flexibility may be allowed – subject to ensuring the health and safety of all involved is not compromised.

Consideration should be given to:

  • The age and level of independence and care needs of the dependents – older children may require less supervision so allow you to work safely and more effectively than smaller children. 
  • The type of role – it may be possible to vary the working hours to balance work and childcare (for example, working later in the evening). 
  • The type of work – it may be possible to adjust the tasks to take account of the different working arrangements.
  • Data protection and cybersecurity – ensuring that data is protected from other occupants in the home.

Such arrangements should be considered on a case-by-case basis while adhering to any relevant policies and protocols.

6. What happens if I live with someone who has to self-quarantine? Will I be paid?
In this case, it is expected you will also be asked to self-quarantine. You should check the guidance on self-isolation available on the gov.uk – Public Health England website which also refers to managing this with others in your household/accommodation.

If you are advised to self- quarantine, please refer to Question 1.

7. Can I work remotely to avoid public transport if the outbreak escalates?
New rules as of 23 March require all staff to work from home unless this absolutely cannot be done from home.

Guidance about travel should be kept under review as part of the employer’s ongoing risk assessments but should be restricted as per the above government measures. If work absolutely cannot be done at home, staff can still attend work but should avoid travelling at peak hours.

High-risk categories
Measures should be applied to everyone but employers should be particularly stringent for those in high-risk categories. See the most up-to-date list on who is considered at high risk.

Note: there are some clinical conditions that put people at even higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. If you are in this category, next week the NHS in England will directly contact you with advice on the more stringent measures you should take in order to keep yourself and others safe. For now, you should rigorously follow the social distancing advice in full.

It is recommended that in consideration of the likelihood of risk and level of potential harm (risk assessment), alternative arrangements are made to adhere to new social distancing rules.

8. I am pregnant – am I more at risk?
New guidance is that pregnant women fall within the higher risk category.

New rules as of 23 March require all staff to work from home unless this absolutely cannot be done from home.

Pregnant women fall within the higher risk category. Follow the guidance for people within the high-risk category.

Those who are at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus (COVID-19) should be particularly stringent in following social distancing measures.

Wherever possible, consider homeworking for pregnant staff and undertake risk assessments as the situation evolves.

If homeworking is not possible, ensure you put any possible mitigating measures in place, to ensure social distancing, based on individual risk. For example, not attending meetings or travelling by public transport to certain meetings/events, or perhaps varying working hours or job content.

9. What do I do if I start to develop symptoms at work?
New rules as of 23 March require all staff to work from home unless this absolutely cannot be done from home.

Official guidance is to stay at home for seven days if you have either:

  • a high temperature
  • a new continuous cough.

Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. You do not need to contact NHS 111 to tell them you’re staying at home. We are advised that NHS will not be testing people who are self-isolating with mild symptoms.

If someone becomes unwell in the workplace and has travelled to China or other affected countries such as continental Europe (the list is growing daily), the unwell person should be removed to an area that is at least two metres away from other people. If possible, find a room or area where they can be isolated behind a closed door, such as a staff office. If it is possible to open a window, do so for ventilation.

The individual who is unwell should call NHS 111 from their mobile, or 999 if an emergency (if they are seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk) and explain which country they have returned from in the last 14 days and outline their current symptoms.

While they wait for advice from NHS 111 or an ambulance to arrive, they should remain at least two metres from other people. They should avoid touching people, surfaces and objects and be advised to cover their mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when they cough or sneeze and put the tissue in a bag or pocket then throw the tissue in the bin. If they don’t have any tissues available, they should cough and sneeze into the crook of their elbow.

If they need to go to the bathroom while waiting for medical assistance, they should use a separate bathroom if available. Follow the official guidance.

10. What happens if someone at work is diagnosed with COVID-19?
New rules as of 23 March require all staff to work from home unless this absolutely cannot be done from home.

The employer will need to review operational impact and implement alternative arrangements as appropriate.

If this has not been possible yet, you may need to consider short-term closure to enable office decontamination, or social distancing in offices to remove or mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

The local public health team will provide advice as applicable.

Employers should urgently consider contingency plans to enable business continuity in the event workplace closure is required, for example, longer-term homeworking, technological solutions to enable agile working, the flexibility of working hours and tasks, etc.

11. If I have booked annual leave and my holiday is cancelled due to coronavirus, do I still have to take my annual leave?
New self-distancing rules now mean staff should not go away for holidays.

They may still wish to take the time off or take it differently, for example, shorter time or part-time leave, etc to assist with homeschooling for instance.

There is no legal requirement to accept a request to change or cancel approved leave. In practice, employers need to be as flexible as they can and would expect to allow cancellation unless business needs dictate otherwise.

Employers can also ask staff to take annual leave at specific times, provided they give twice the amount of notice of the duration of the leave – that is, if asking staff to take one week’s leave, you must give two weeks’ notice.

12. What do I do if I am unable to return to the UK?
Official FCO advice is now for all UK citizens to return to the UK as soon as possible.

Staff should follow the official advice and guidance provided to them. Whether they are quarantined in the UK or on holiday, the sick pay policy will be applied. 

If employees are quarantined while on holiday, based on official guidance, then they could reclaim their annual leave subject to meeting the requirements of the sickness absence policy and procedure.

13. What additional precautions should we take to help protect staff who have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to infection?
Follow official guidance from the government website. See Question 7 about high-risk individuals.

Employers have a duty of care to their staff. Employees also have a duty of care to themselves. Staff should make their management aware of any underlying health condition, so they may undertake a risk assessment. This may result in putting in place appropriate measures, based on individual risk, to help mitigate the likelihood of infection.

All staff should be reminded to be extra vigilant in terms of good hygiene including effective hand washing, food preparation, etc and abide by official guidance on social distancing and self-isolation.

14. Do I still get paid if the office closes and homeworking is not possible?
Employers should explore exceptional measures such as asking staff to take annual leave, unpaid leave, or reduced hours.

Where employers have a lay-off/short-term working clause in their contract they can implement such conditions.

As a last resort, if there is no work for the employee to do, employers should consider the new Job Retention Scheme in situations where redundancy would apply. Read more about the Job Retention Scheme.

15. Should the office need to close on days I have booked as annual leave, would those leave days be returned? 
If you are on annual leave, then you are not available to work so the employee would not be entitled to get their leave back.

16. What is the rate of Statutory Sick Pay SSP)?
When in force, the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2020 (still in draft form) will increase the weekly rate of statutory sick pay from £94.25 to £95.85 from 6 April 2020.

The lower earnings limit for national insurance purposes will increase from £118 to £120 per week from 6 April 2020.

17. If a member of staff is self-isolating based on official guidance but is not symptomatic, do we have to pay occupational sick pay?
Official guidance is that ‘employers should use their discretion and respect the medical need to self-isolate in making decisions about sick pay’.

The legal advice we have obtained is that this is open to interpretation as it does not fall within statutory rights and has obviously not yet been tested in court! However, the recommended approach is that employers consider that there may very well be an implied term (in other words, not expressed in the contract but still enforceable) that in cases where Statutory Sick Pay applies, then occupational sick pay should be applied too.

Therefore, we recommend that where the employee falls within the SSP eligibility criteria set out by the government, the employer applies its normal occupational sick pay policy – if affordable and sustainable (consider that the situation may apply to many of your staff in the coming weeks).

Any period of occupational sick pay would count as part of overall occupational sick pay entitlement and can be counted when adding up total sickness absence etc.

Note also that the SSP part of the sick pay will be recoverable from the state as confirmed by the government for employers with fewer than 250 staff.

18. What evidence can an employer request from an employee who is currently absent with flu-like symptoms when they are advised not to go to their GP?
Most sickness absence policies allow employees to self-certify absences of up to seven days. Where an employee who is absent for more than seven days advises that they have flu-like symptoms but cannot obtain evidence, the employer may need to make an exception to its normal requirement for a fit note.

For the purposes of determining eligibility for statutory sick pay, employers are able to set their own rules on what evidence they reasonably require of employees’ illness. The legislation does not require that the evidence is in the form of a fit note.

On 11 March 2020, the Chancellor announced that employees who are advised to self-isolate to prevent the spread of coronavirus will ‘soon’ be able to obtain an alternative to the fit note from the NHS 111 service.

In the meantime, the employer should take all reasonable steps to verify the sickness absence. This could include requiring the employee to make regular telephone contact, and requiring the employee to explain what medical advice they have sought and followed. The employee could be asked to provide evidence where possible and reasonable in the circumstances, although employers should use their discretion and take account of the situation.

19. What is the Job Retention Scheme?
See the HRSP overview of the Job Retention Scheme and official government guidance.