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Home Advice for Parents & CarersCoronavirus (COVID-19) Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Return to work and health and safety

Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Return to work and health and safety

Last updated: 19 Apr 2022

Please follow government guidance or guidance specific to your local area, as it changes often.

You might also want to look at our other coronavirus pages:

Health and safety

I am worried about catching COVID if I return to work. What should my employer do to keep me safe?

If you cannot work from home, your employer may require you to go to work. As of 20 January 2022 the government guidance no longer states that you should work from home where possible. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that for many jobs it is possible to work efficiently from home.

Employers have a duty to protect workers health and safety, including from risks of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections.

One key way your employer can show that they are protecting your health and safety is by following the updated government guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections. The government updated this guidance on 1 April 2022, and it outlines steps that all employers take steps to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses, including COVID, in the workplace. 

Under the updated guidance, employers may continue (but are no longer required) to specifically consider COVID-19 in health and safety risk assessments. The guidance replaces the sector-specific ‘Working safely during coronavirus’ guidance, which had detailed requirements employers needed to follow to keep workers safe from COVID. However, there are stronger protections for workers who come into contact with COVID-19 directly through their work or work activity, such as health and social care workers caring for patients with COVID-19.

The updated guidance that applies to most workplaces provides that:

  • Employers should maintain clean working environments to reduce the spread of infections,, encourage and enable staff to get vaccinated and consider ventilation.
  • The requirement for every employer to consider COVID-19 in their health and safety risk assessment has been removed, but those who work with COVID-19, such as laboratories, must continue to undertake risk assessments that consider COVID-19.
  • Employers have a duty to consult with their employees, or their representatives, on health and safety matters.
  • Employers may wish to consider the needs of employees at greater risk from COVID-19, including those whose immune system means they are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

You should check this guidance to make sure that your employer is following it. This guidance applies across the UK, but there is different guidance on health and safety in Wales and Scotland that should be considered alongside local public health and safety requirements.

There are many measures your employer can take to reduce the spread of respiratory infections at work. These will depend on your job and your workplace, but may include:

  • Encouraging and enabling workers to be vaccinated and to get their vaccines when offered;
  • Ensuring good ventilation in the workplace by letting fresh air in; and
  • Maintaining a clean workplace by providing cleaning products, soap and hot water, and/or hand sanitiser.

If you cannot work from home and are concerned about the risk of coronavirus, your employer may be willing to agree for you to take annual leave, unpaid parental leave, a sabbatical or other period of leave. You would need to check how long the leave could last and if the leave would be paid or unpaid. 

If you need further advice on what benefits you could claim during this time, we have a webpage on financial support for families whose income is affected by coronavirus.

Can my employer continue to require masks or face coverings?

The updated government guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections no longer generally recommends wearing face masks at work.

In England, as of 1 April 2022, face coverings are no longer required by law in most public places and on public transport. Depending on your employer and their health and safety assessment, they may or may not continue to require face masks or coverings.

If your employer tells you that you must wear a mask or face covering at work, normally you must do so if it is a reasonable instruction for health and safety purposes. If it is a reasonable instruction, and you do not have a disability or medical reason why you cannot wear a mask, your employer may discipline you for refusing to wear a mask.

If your employer does not require people at your workplace to wear masks, and you have concerns about health and safety, you should speak to your employer. Whether masks should be worn in your workplace may depend on other health and safety factors, such as how good the ventilation is and whether you are regularly in close proximity to other people.

If you have a health condition that makes you vulnerable to COVID, you should speak to your employer about continuing to require the wearing of masks or face coverings. If you have a disability, you may make a request for reasonable adjustments, which could include wearing face masks or coverings. They should also help you to comply with the government guidance for people whose immune system means they are at higher risk.

My employer is not following social distancing at work. What can I do?

The updated government guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections no longer generally recommends social distancing at work.

As of 19 July 2021, the government no longer requires businesses to ensure social distancing in the workplace. This means that employers do not need to implement social distancing in their business, workplace or venue, and customers and workers do not need to keep apart.

However, employers and others must continue to follow health and safety requirements, and take reasonable steps to reduce the spread of respiratory infections, including COVID, as set out in the updated guidance. This may or may not include social distancing, depending on your employer’s risk assessment.

If your employer does not require people at your workplace to distance, and you have concerns about health and safety, you should speak to your employer. Whether social distancing should be practised in your workplace may depend on other health and safety factors, such as how good the ventilation is and whether you are regularly in close proximity to other people.

If you have a health condition that makes you vulnerable to COVID, you should speak to your employer about continuing to require distancing. If you have a disability, you may make a request for reasonable adjustments, which could include social distancing measures. They should also help you to comply with the government guidance for people whose immune system means they are at higher risk.

I think my workplace is unsafe due to COVID. What can I do?

In the first instance, you should speak to your employer about your concerns and follow up in writing. Let your employer know what you are worried about and why you are worried. Your employer has a duty to protect your health and safety, so should take your concerns seriously. You can ask them to share a copy of their health and safety risk assessment, which may or may not address COVID risks specifically.

Many workplaces have a formal system for reporting health and safety concerns, so you should check your employer’s policies. Putting your concerns in writing is advisable, because if you are disadvantaged by your employer because of raising this issue, you may have a number of claims against your employer and you may want to seek further advice.

If you are a member of a union, you should speak to your union representative about your concerns. They may be able to offer further advice and support.

If speaking to your employer hasn’t resolved the issue, and you believe that health and safety laws are being broken, and putting you or others at risk of serious harm, you can report your concerns to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). They will take your details, but you can stay anonymous if you wish.

Can I refuse to go to work if I believe my workplace is unsafe?

If you think that your workplace is unsafe because your employer is not following health and safety law and government guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections, you may be able to refuse to go to work if you reasonably believe that the threat to your health is serious and imminent. The danger can include danger caused by the behaviour of work colleagues.

This protection from being treated unfavourably or being dismissed comes from sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996. It applies to employees, and potentially workers (the Act only refers to ’employees’, but EU case law suggests workers could also protected by this right). It applies regardless of how long you have been working for your employer.

Is COVID a “serious and imminent” danger?

Whether the risk is a “serious and imminent” danger will depend on your particular role and workplace and whether or not you have any medical conditions which mean that you are at higher risk. It will also depend on whether you have been vaccinated or have been advised to be vaccinated.

If your employer is complying with the the relevant government guidance, there is no outbreak of COVID, and you are not vulnerable and/or you are vaccinated, it is less likely that it is reasonable for you to believe there is a serious and imminent danger.

Even if your employer is complying with health and safety laws and the government guidance, it is still possible that you could reasonably believe it is too dangerous for you to go into work. For example, you may have an underlying health condition which makes you vulnerable to coronavirus, there may be an active COVID outbreak at work, or you may have been advised by a medical professional not to receive the vaccine. The danger does not have to be to you as the employee – it can be to “others”, including members of the public.

It is worth remembering though, that this protection was designed for extreme health and safety emergencies. It was not designed with COVID-19 in mind and its application to the current pandemic is not fully tested in the courts. We therefore recommend that you seek advice before refusing to go to work on this basis.

What should I do if I refuse to work?

If you refuse to go to work because you think there is a serious and imminent danger from coronavirus, you should tell your employer this in writing. You should explain in detail why you think it is not safe for you to come into work, including any steps you think your employer has failed to take to protect you and any factors that make you particularly vulnerable.

You could refer to the government guidance on reducing the spread of respiratory infections, if your employer is not following this guidance, and any local guidance that may apply. There is different guidance on health and safety in Wales and Scotland that should be considered alongside local public health and safety requirements.

Am I entitled to be paid?

In situations where this protection applies, you would normally be entitled to stay home on full pay as loss of pay would arguably constitute a detriment. However, this is not guaranteed – you will need to make a convincing argument that the danger to health and safety is ‘serious and imminent’.

If your employer is not complying with their health and safety obligations, they could be in breach of your employment contract (specifically, the mutual duty of trust and confidence). You could use this argument to try to negotiate a period of paid leave until your employer has complied with the government guidance.

I am scared of catching COVID on my commute. What can I do?

The law on taking public transport to work is unclear. If you think that your commute places you in serious and imminent danger of COVID, you might be able to refuse to travel to and from work. 

If you are worried about your travel to work, you should speak to your employer and explain your concerns. They may be able to change your shifts to allow you to travel at quieter times, or offer you work closer to where you live, so that you can walk or cycle to work.

If you reasonably believe that the threat to your health is serious and imminent, then you can refuse to go to work. It is not clear whether the “danger” in your commute allows you to refuse to come to work – usually (but not always!) the commute is not considered part of your working conditions for health and safety at work. It is unclear if the risk of coronavirus on public transport means that commuting could now be considered part of your working conditions. Employers might argue that it is impossible for them to control safety outside the workplace, and travel to work is normally the employee’s responsibility. There is no clear law on this point.

In Edwards v Secretary of State for Justice [2014], employees could refuse to work because of the danger of travel to work. However, their employer was providing the transport in this case. It is still unclear whether travelling on public transport could be covered by this.

Can my employer dismiss or discipline me if I refuse to come to work?

This will depend on your individual circumstances but, in certain situations, your employer can dismiss you for not coming into work.

Remember, you should always tell your employer in writing if you are planning not to come into work and explain why. Otherwise, it can be treated as an unauthorised absence, and your employer may discipline you.

If you refused to come to work because you reasonably believed there was a serious and imminent danger to yourself or others, and your employer dismissed you for this reason, then you may have a claim for automatic unfair dismissal (section 100 Employment Rights Act 1996). This means that you can bring a claim against your employer in an Employment Tribunal. You do not need to have worked for a minimum period of time for your employer (like you normally do for unfair dismissal).

There are strict time limits on bringing a claim in the Employment Tribunal. This is also a serious step – you should seek legal advice if you are considering making a claim. There is more information on bringing a claim at the Employment Tribunal on our advice pages. If you are successful in a claim at the Employment Tribunal, you may receive compensation for non-payment of wages.

If you are punished in another way (for example, if you were disciplined or refused a promotion), this would also be unlawful. It is unlawful for your employer to treat you unfavourably as a result of refusing to go to work because of a serious and imminent danger. Treating you “unfavourably” could mean a wide range of things, including refusing you a promotion, disciplining you, or giving you fewer hours of work (if you are on a contract with variable hours) when you return to work.

It is better to try to resolve issues with your employer informally, at an early stage. Explain in as much detail as you can why you do not feel safe coming into work, and what steps you think should be taken to make your workplace safer.

You should tell your employer if your particular circumstances make it especially risky for you to be in work (for example, if you live with someone who is extremely vulnerable to coronavirus, or you yourself are vulnerable to coronavirus). You can try to negotiate to work from home. Otherwise, you might be able to take some kind of paid or unpaid leave. There is more information on these different options on our employment rights and coronavirus page.

Changes to employment terms

My employer wants to make changes to my pay, hours or working pattern when I come back to work. Can they do this?

Your employer can only change your employment contract with your agreement. Your employer usually has to ask for your consent (unless there is a collective agreement or union involved, see more below). You should look through any proposed changes carefully, and ask your employer to explain why they are making them.

If you agree with your employer’s proposed changes, you can carry on working with the changes. It is good practice to put this new agreement in writing. But bear in mind that this may change your employment contract permanently.

If you only want to agree to a temporary change in your contract, you should make this clear to your employer. As above, you should make sure that this agreement is in writing, and that it says you only agree to the reduction in hours or pay on a temporary basis. Be as clear as you can.

If you don’t agree with your employer’s proposed changes, then you should make this clear. If you continue to go to work, you should say that you are doing so under protest, and that you do not accept the proposed changes. We have a sample letter of protest that you can use. You could try to negotiate a more acceptable change with your employer, for example, one that works around your care commitments. You could also suggest a trial period to your employer, to see how well your proposed arrangement works.

There is more information on our page on the law when your employer asks you to change your hours.

If your workplace has a collective agreement, they may be able to agree to a change on your behalf. You should seek further legal advice if this is the case.

I do not feel comfortable returning to work. Can I request to work from home? 

If you fear that your ability to do your job will be affected by COVID in the long term, you could consider making a formal flexible working request. This may be important if you, or a person you live with, is extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. It may also be useful for parents who may have difficulty finding childcare at this time e.g. while after school clubs and wrap around childcare is limited.  

You can make a flexible working request to change your hours or to switch to working from home on a permanent basis. A statutory flexible working request usually leads to a permanent change in your contract, so if you want the change to be temporary, you must make this clear to your employer. There is no guarantee that your flexible working request will be successful, but you have a right to make a formal request and your employer cannot discriminate against you for making such a request. 

We’ve created a template letter to request flexible working that you can use. You should also read the guidance below before making the request.

Any employee with 26 weeks of service can make a formal flexible working request. This must: 

  • Be in writing
  • Be dated
  • Explain the change you would like to make to your working pattern 
  • Explain when you would like the change to come into force 
  • Explain what effect the change would have on the business
  • Explain how such effects might be dealt with
  • State that it is a statutory request
  • State if the employee has made a request previously and if so when

An employer can refuse a request for flexible working if they give you one of the permitted business reasons for doing so (the full list of reasons is on our webpage here). It’s important to anticipate any objections in advance and assure your employer that these don’t apply in your situation. 

If you have been working from home while COVID restrictions were in place, you could use this to show that remote working is feasible in your workplace. Use evidence from your work to show your employer how this would work well for them. You could also gather information about people who do similar jobs to yours on a flexible basis to prove that there is no detriment to the quality of their work because of their working arrangements. Other helpful tips for negotiating flexible working are available on our website

Your employer is allowed to take up to 3 months to respond to your request. You should ask your employer if they would agree to get back to you in a shorter time frame if you feel a change in working arrangements is urgent. If you need to take time off work while you wait for your employer to respond, you may be able to rely on parental leave, annual leave or time off for dependants.  

Although the law may be able to help you in relation to flexible working, it is better to try to reach a negotiated agreement with your employer, rather than taking legal action against them. However, if you feel that your employer has not seriously considered your request or failed to follow the correct procedure, you may be able to bring a claim at the Employment Tribunal

If you bring a claim against your employer because they have not followed the flexible working procedure, this can sometimes be combined with other claims. For example, if you are vulnerable to coronavirus, you could also claim indirect disability discrimination if your flexible working request is rejected. If you are a woman, and you cannot return to work because of childcare responsibilities, you may have a claim for indirect sex discrimination. More information on discrimination and flexible working is available here

Whistleblowing

If I complain about safety in my workplace, is this whistleblowing?

It depends. A complaint about the safety of your workplace could be a ‘Protected Disclosure’. However, the law in this area is very complicated. If you want to know more about whistleblowing, you should contact the organisation Protect. They have more advice on coronavirus and whistleblowing on their website.

Shielding and vulnerable people

Do I have to go back to work if I live with a vulnerable person?

If you live with someone who is vulnerable, the government advice is you should follow the same restrictions as the rest of the population.

In England, as of 20 January 2022 the government guidance no longer states that you should generally work from home where possible. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that for many jobs it is possible to work efficiently from home. You can ask your employer if working from home is possible – to help reduce the risk to the person you live with.

For more information, see our page on rights for carers and clinically extremely vulnerable.

I was previously told to shield because I am clinically extremely vulnerable. Can my employer make me return to work?

Shielding has been paused in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Your employer has a duty to protect your health and safety and should conduct a risk assessment and make the workplace safe for you.

For more information, see our page on rights for carers and clinically extremely vulnerable.

According to government guidance, I am vulnerable. Do I have to go to work?

The government guidance no longer recommends working from home. This applies whether you are vulnerable or not.

If you are vulnerable, you may be required to go to work. However, the pandemic has demonstrated that for many jobs it is possible to work efficiently from home.

Your employer has a duty to protect your health and safety. They will still have to conduct a risk assessment, and take reasonable steps to make the workplace safe for you, taking into account the fact that you are vulnerable.

For more information, see our page on rights for carers and clinically extremely vulnerable.

I am recovering from COVID, and my employer wants me to return to work. Do they have to make any adjustments for me?

If you are too ill to return to work, you should take sick leave and receive sick pay from your employer. This can be enhanced sick pay paid under your employment contract, or Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), paid at £95.85 a week for up to 28 weeks.

Coronavirus is still a new illness, and there is lots of uncertainty about its long-term effects. However, if you were hospitalised because of COVID, and are still feeling the effects of your illness, you may be considered a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010. This will apply if the impact of coronavirus has a substantial adverse effect on your ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. This effect must be expected to last at least 12 months.

If you are disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act, then your employer has a duty to make reasonable adjustments for you. You should think about what kind of adjustments you want to suggest to your employer, for example:

  • a phased return to work on reduced hours, if you are still recovering
  • discounting virus-related time off from your sick days
  • allowing time off to attend follow-up hospital appointments

Even if your condition is not serious enough for you to be considered disabled under the Equality Act, you can still request reasonable adjustments from your employer. Your employer has a duty to protect your health, safety and welfare. One way for them to fulfill this duty would be to make reasonable adjustments for you in the workplace.

See our FAQ above on ‘Can my employer discipline me or refuse training or promotion if I refuse to come to work because I’m worried about coronavirus?

Childcare

I have been asked to return to work, but I have no childcare.

Your employer can ask you to return to the office, and as part of that to arrange childcare. If will take you some time to arrange childcare, you may be able to use time off for dependants, parental leave, or another form of leave to stay off work. See our FAQ on School Closures and Childcare.

If you would like make a long-term change to your working conditions, you could consider putting in a request for flexible working. See our question on flexible working for more information. 

Pregnancy and maternity

I am pregnant, but my employer wants me to return to work. Do I have to?

See our FAQs on pregnancy and coronavirus here, in particular the question ‘I am pregnant. Can I refuse to go to work because of coronavirus?’.

Useful resources

Where can I go for more help?

We have created a number of articles on topics relating to coronavirus. These are linked at the very top of this page.

To find out what government schemes will help if work has been affected by Covid-19, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have created a decision tree to help you navigate what you may be entitled to.

Links to further resources:

This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. 

If you have further questions and would like to contact our advice team please use our advice contact form below or call us.

Advice contact form


 

The information on the law contained on this site is provided free of charge and does not, and is not intended to, amount to legal advice to any person on a specific case or matter. If you are not a solicitor, you are advised to obtain specific legal advice about your case or matter and not to rely solely on this information. Law and guidance is changing regularly in this area.