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UK Quarantine list: What happens if employees abroad on holiday have to quarantine on return?

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The list of countries being removed from the UK and Scotland’s safe travel lists is ever increasing: the most recent news being that seven Greek Islands are no longer ‘safe’ and travellers will have to quarantine on return.

At time of writing, the Scottish Government is maintaining a list of exempt countries, found here. Anyone returning from a country which is not on the list must self-isolate, other than in the case of some limited sector specific exemptions. This means employees who are on holiday must self-isolate for 14 days on return from numerous countries including Spain, France, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Greece, Croatia, Jamaica, Czech Republic, Cuba, China, Thailand, Brazil and the USA.

This raises questions for employers, as employees who go on holiday may have to quarantine, potentially at short notice if the government advice changes while they are away. In this blog, we consider the implications for such employees, particularly in relation to pay. 

It is generally advisable for employers to treat the situation sympathetically and ensure employees do not feel forced to break the self-isolation. However, given that it is now known that the government is taking such decisions at short notice, it is worth making the position clear to employees so that they are aware of the implications for their work and pay should they have to quarantine on their return. In particular, it is advisable to make employees aware of the consequences if they choose to travel to a country in the knowledge they will have to quarantine on their return. Generally, it would be advisable to have discussed matters before the travel takes place so that agreed arrangements can be put in place.

If employees can work from home, they can continue working during the quarantine period and be paid as usual. However, where employees cannot work from home, decisions will require to be made around how to deal with the self-isolation period.

Annual Leave

Consideration could be given to using (further) annual leave to cover the period of quarantine, but this should be done in accordance with the employee’s contract and their rights in terms of annual leave and holiday pay. The employee may not have enough annual leave entitlement remaining to cover the quarantine period, or it may leave them with no entitlement and they may not wish to use up their annual leave in this way. While it is open to an employer to give notice specifying dates of annual leave, it is advisable to treat the matter sympathetically. Therefore this option is something which would be best discussed, ideally before an employee goes away.

Sick Leave/Pay

While Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) has been extended to cover self-isolation, this only applies where an employee is doing so as a result of having or having been exposed to COVID-19, or having otherwise been advised to isolate by public health authorities. The government website specifically states it does not apply in cases where an employee is isolating on return to the UK from abroad. If the employee actually is unwell, they can be treated as on sick leave and receive SSP. However, if they are self-isolating but are otherwise fit to work they cannot be treated as being on sick leave.

Special Leave

If the employee is not unwell and cannot be paid sick pay, and using annual leave is not an appropriate option, it may be possible to agree with the employee that the quarantine period will be treated as a period of what might be referred to as ‘special leave’ – effectively extra leave which is granted in exceptional circumstances and which is authorised on a discretionary basis by the employer. Some businesses may have contractual provision for such leave already. Given that self-isolation is a legal requirement and it is in the interests of businesses and their employees not to have a person in the workplace who may have been exposed to Coivid-19, generally it will be reasonable to agree to leave of this type. However, this does not necessarily grant the employee a right to pay for this period. If there is contractual provision for such exceptional leave and for it to be paid, then the employee should receive pay. If there is not, then this decision would be at the discretion of the employer.

In all cases, attention has to be paid to the contractual terms and legal rights of employees. It is advisable to have considered and discussed such matters with employees, including encouraging employees to discuss any planned travel so that any proposed arrangements can be discussed before the issue arises.

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