Home Advice for Parents & CarersCoronavirus (COVID-19) Coronavirus (COVID-19) – School Closures and Childcare

Coronavirus (COVID-19) – School Closures and Childcare

Last updated: 23 Dec 2021
Photograph of an empty classroom from a primary school


The Government no longer recommends that it is necessary to keep children in consistent groups (‘bubbles’) or to keep groups apart as much as possible, unless in cases of an outbreak within a school or childcare provider.

In addition, those who are fully vaccinated or aged under 18 years and 6 months no longer have to isolate if they are a ‘close contact’ of a positive case. For parents with children who have to isolate or who have tested positive for coronavirus, this may cause difficulty attending work because they are not legally required to self-isolate themselves. 

From 14 December 2021, adults who are fully vaccinated and all children and young people aged between 5 and 18 years and 6 months identified as a contact of someone with COVID-19 are strongly advised to take a LFD test every day for 7 days and continue to attend their school as normal, unless they have a positive test result. Daily testing of
close contacts applies to all contacts who are:

  • fully vaccinated adults – people who have had 2 doses of an approved vaccine
  • all children and young people aged 5 to 18 years and 6 months, regardless of their
    vaccination status
  • people who are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons
  • people taking part, or have taken part, in an approved clinical trial for a COVID-19

This article covers frequently asked questions on what to do if your child has to self-isolate.

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

My child tested positive for coronavirus

My child tested positive – do I need to self-isolate?

Since December 2021, the government rules on self-isolation changed.

If you are fully vaccinated, and someone you live with tests positive for COVID-19, you do not need to self-isolate. However, you are advised to take daily lateral flow tests for seven days. If you are unvaccinated, you still need to self-isolate for 10 days.

Even if you are not required to self-isolate, you still may not be able to take time off work if you don’t have childcare (see question below).

If you cannot go to work because you need to self-isolate, you can get an isolation note from the NHS.

I have no childcare. What can I do?

Work from home

In England, the Government guidance is you should work from home if you can. If you have no childcare available, and if it is at all possible for you to work from home, you should ask your employer to allow you to work from home.

Negotiate a reduction of your hours

You can negotiate a reduction in hours with your employer if this would allow you to balance work and childcare while your child completes their self-isolation period.

If your employer does not agree to your informal conversations, you can put in a formal flexible working request. However, your employer has three months to make a decision and could refuse if it would have a detrimental impact on their business.

For more information, see our page on How do I ask to change my working hours?

We’ve created a template letter to request flexible working during coronavirus that you can use.

Take time off for dependants

You also have the statutory right to take time off for dependants to deal with an emergency involving a dependant – not just children, but other dependants too, like a partner or parent. But this is unpaid unless it is a perk in your contract or employer’s policy.

You can take time off that is necessary because of an unexpected disruption in care arrangements. Time off for dependants usually lasts only a couple of days to allow you time to organise the care of your dependant. But in today’s circumstances, some people have no other care options they can organise, so our view is that time off can last much longer. There is no limit to how often you can take time off for dependants, but the time taken must be reasonable and necessary.

Your employer might challenge the time off if they believe the disruption in care was foreseeable and not ‘unexpected’. It is true that if you knew about a situation beforehand, it will be more difficult to show that the time off was necessary. Your employer can expect you to show that you tried to make alternative arrangements for care. But if you can show there is nobody else who can help, time off for dependants should be considered reasonable and necessary, even if you knew about the situation in advance.

You should not be punished for taking time off for dependants. In legal terms, you have the right not to be treated unfavourably for taking time off for dependants. So your employer should not penalise you in any way once you return to work from taking this type of time off.

Unpaid parental leave

You can take unpaid parental leave if you are an employee, have a child (or children) under 18, and have worked for your employer for at least one year. You can take 4 weeks per child per year, up to a maximum of 18 weeks per child.

Parental leave is a form of statutory leave (like maternity or paternity leave) and must be taken in one-week blocks. If your child is disabled and on Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payment, you can take it in blocks of one day.

Parental leave is unpaid, but your employer’s policy might be more generous. You should check your contract and employer’s policies.

Strictly speaking, you need to give 21 days’ notice to take unpaid parental leave. But under the circumstances, your employer may let you take the leave earlier than the required notice. If your employer insists that you give them 21 days’ notice for parental leave, you may be able to take time off for dependants instead. 

Your employer cannot deny you your right to take parental leave and cannot change the amount of leave you are requesting. However, your employer might be able to postpone parental leave for up to six months if there would be a serious disruption to the business. It may be difficult for an employer to argue that it is reasonable to postpone parental leave in the current circumstances. If your employer postpones your leave, they must write to you explaining why and suggesting a different start day.

Special leave

Some employers offer special leave, such as a form of compassionate leave for special circumstances. If you can take negotiate to take a period of special leave, then this could be a good option. Whether special leave is paid or unpaid is determined by your employer’s policy or practice.

Annual leave

Finally, your employer may also allow you to take some annual leave. The benefit of this is that it would be paid at your full salary. However, it would reduce the amount of annual leave you have for the rest of the year.

Financial support

If you are suddenly left with less income or without income, there may be certain benefits that you could claim. See our page on financial support for working families during coronavirus for more information. 

Can my employer make me take unpaid leave?

Potentially. You should check your employment contract and employer’s leave policy carefully to see if they offer a form of paid family, emergency or compassionate leave above the legal minimum.

However, unless you have a contractual entitlement to paid leave, your employer may insist that you take unpaid leave.

Alternatively, if you take annual leave to cover the period of your child’s self-isolation, you can be paid for the time off.

If your income is reduced as a result of taking time off work or reducing your hours, see our financial support page for more information on what help is available.

Can my employer make me arrange other childcare?

If your child has been instructed to self-isolate or has symptoms

If your child has tested positive for coronavirus or has symptoms, they will need to self-isolate. See the NHS guidance on when to self-isolate.

If your child is instructed to self-isolate, it is very important that they stay home and do not mix with any other households, including a childcare provider. You may also need to self-isolate if you have symptoms, or someone in your household tests positive or has symptoms and you are not vaccinated. 

If your employer insists that you attend work, you should explain to your employer that your child is required to self-isolate, and if it is at all possible for you to work from home, you should. You may also be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if you need to self-isolate.

If you are unable to work from home, you may need to take time off for dependants or unpaid parental leave.

I was forced to take unpaid leave and I am struggling, is there any financial support?

If you are worried about the financial implications of taking unpaid leave, see our financial support page for more information.

Here is a summary of some options for financial support:

Universal Credit

If you are not already claiming any other benefits, you may be able to claim Universal Credit if you are on unpaid leave. Beware that making a claim for Universal Credit will replace any existing claims you have for working tax credit, child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based employment and support allowance and income-based jobseeker’s allowance and you would not be able to return to those benefits.

If you are already claiming Universal Credit, and you take unpaid leave, your income will be reduced. If this is the case, you should inform your Work Coach of your reduction in income. If you are already claiming Universal Credit, your award may increase while your income is lower during the period of unpaid leave.

The government has created some guidance to help people understand Universal Credit and any specific coronavirus rules: Already claiming benefits – Understanding Universal Credit

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have a useful online tool about UC during coronavirus: Ask CPAG | Universal credit during the COVID-19 outbreak

Council Tax Reduction/Support

You may be able to claim a reduction in council tax – you should contact your local council to see if you can get a reduction (which your local authority may call “council tax support”).

If you get a reduction, make sure you tell your local authority about any changes to your income, including any other benefits you get. You can apply for a council tax reduction through the government website: Apply for Council Tax Reduction.

Contact Mortgage/Utilities/Credit Provider

If you pay a mortgage, you could ask your mortgage provider for a payment holiday for 3 months to free up some more money during this time. If you are renting and struggling to pay your rent Citizens Advice and Shelter provide advice on what you should do.

If you are struggling to pay bills, you could also consider contacting your electricity, gas or water company and credit card company to see what arrangements they can offer you. For further information on what to do if you are struggling to pay your bills, rent or mortgage see Citizens Advice.

Test and Trace Support Payment

If you live in England and have tested positive for coronavirus or you’ve been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace, or you are a parent or guardian of a child who has tested positive, you may be eligible for a £500 lump sum Test and Trace Support Payment.

Benefits Calculator

To check your eligibility for these and other benefits, use this Benefits Calculator.

Sending children to school or childcare

My child is clinically vulnerable, do I have to send them to school?

Schools in England reopened on 8 March 2021. Shielding has been paused in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

In England, clinically extremely vulnerable pupils and students should attend their school or other educational setting and follow appropriate health and safety advice. Read the School Guidance here. Children who live in a household with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable are not advised to shield and should attend school or college.

In Scotland, the government guidance states that children who are clinically extremely vulnerable can attend school where the guidance on reducing risks is being followed.

In Wales, the government guidance states that children who are clinically extremely vulnerable and have been following shielding measures can return to school when appropriate for their year group.

In Northern Ireland, you can read the latest guidance here. Government guidance states that children who are clinically extremely vulnerable and were previously advised to shield can continue to go to school, but should get advice from their GP who may advise some children not to attend school. Further guidance is available in the Department of Education’s guidance for education settings.

The latest scientific guidance to the government is that most children infected with coronavirus experience less severe symptoms than adults. GPs have been reviewing all children who were initially identified as clinically extremely vulnerable to confirm whether they are still thought to be at the highest risk. You should speak to your GP if you’re unsure whether your child is considered clinically extremely vulnerable.

More information for parents about educational settings is available here.

I am worried about coronavirus. Do I have to send my children to school?

The latest scientific guidance to the government is that most children infected with coronavirus experience less severe symptoms than adults. This is said to be the same with the new strain of COVID-19.

However, schools are taking a number of precautions to prevent the spreading of coronavirus. School Guidance here

If you are clinically extremely vulnerable or clinically vulnerable, the government advises that your children should still attend school.

In these circumstances, if you don’t want to send your children to school and wish them to be home-schooled instead, you could ask to work from home. However, unless your child has been advised not to attend school, your employer may insist that you make childcare arrangements.

More information for parents about educational settings is available here.

Alternative arrangements / support

Can I leave my children with a friend or family member?

Since the lifting of most Covid restrictions, all UK nations generally allow informal childcare where your child is not under a duty to self-isolate.

However, if your child is required to self-isolate they must stay at home and should not come into contact with anyone outside their household.  

The NHS guidance states that children should not be sent to a childminder while self-isolating, and that family and friends should only be allowed to enter the home to provide ‘essential care’. In our view, it would likely be unreasonable for an employer to expect you to put a family member to put themselves at risk of COVID-19 so that you can attend work. You may also be at risk of breaching the legal duty to ensure that your child self-isolates if you allow visitors to your home while the child is in their self-isolation period. 

If you are a dual-parent household and can split the time off between you, it may be reasonable for your employer to ask you to consider doing this. However, it will depend very much on you and your partners’ circumstances. 

Can I get help with childcare costs?

The schemes for childcare vary depending on which part of the UK you live in. We understand local councils are keen to help critical workers and may be providing additional support for critical workers.

So as a first step, we recommend you get in touch with your local council childcare team. We also suggest you ask your workplace if they are arranging any support for childcare costs.

If you live in Wales:  the government has announced that funding will be diverted so that key workers can access free childcare for their pre-school age children under the Coronavirus Childcare Assistance Scheme.

If you live in Scotland: the government has not made any specific provision for pre-school age children. However they have set out guidance on who is a key worker (which is different to the guidance issued by central government) and made clear that decisions on key workers and childcare are taken locally in line with national criteria. Importantly only key workers who cannot fulfil their functions when they are working remotely from home can qualify for critical childcare.  

If you live in any other part of the UK: unfortunately the schemes in the rest of the UK have not been amended in light of the pandemic. The government have announced that local authorities are able to redistribute funding across settings accordingly to enable local authorities to ensure that critical workers, including NHS staff, are able to access childcare where they need it.   The government has issued guidance as to how childcare settings will operate. We await further guidance on support with childcare costs. In the interim, the normal rules around childcare therefore continue to apply. Please click here for details.

Will the government continue to pay for free childcare if nurseries close?

Yes, the government has confirmed that they will continue to pay for free early years entitlement places for 2, 3 and 4 year olds, even if the childcare provider is closed or the children aren’t able to attend. Local authorities have been told to continue to fund early entitlements for all childminders, schools and nurseries.

Can my employer ask me to bring my children into work?

In certain circumstances, your employer may be able to ask you to bring your children into work, but they should not force you to do so. You must consider if it is safe for your children to be at your workplace and how it would impact your ability to do your job.

Before agreeing, you should ask your employer how they think the arrangement would work – for example, would they provide a safe space for the children to sit and play? Would you be able to take breaks with them? Would your role or hours would be adjusted because of the disruption? And how will they enforce health and safety requirements with very small children?

Your employer knows you and your work space but they won’t know your child so it important to think about these issues before agreeing. You may want to consider a trial day of the arrangement to see if it could work.

If your employer asks you to bring your children to work, they must ensure they comply with health and safety rules for you and your child.

Health and Safety

All employers are required by the law to assess and minimise health and safety risks in the workplace (whether those affect their employees or others). As your employer is asking you to bring your child into work, they must take precautions to protect both your health as an employee and that of your children.

As well as the usual obligation to provide a safe workplace, employers must take additional precautions where young people (i.e. aged 18 or under) are involved. The law specifically states that must protect young people from risks arising due to:

  • their lack of experience;
  • being unaware of existing or potential risks; or
  • their lack of maturity.

You should consider carefully whether it is safe your child to come to work with you, considering the government’s strict social distancing guidance.  You should also consider whether either you or your child(ren) are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus due to pre-existing medical conditions. It may be a good idea to approach your employer to ask them what additional measures they will take to protect you and your child(ren) during this time.

If, following discussions with your employer, you reasonably believe that your workplace would not be a safe environment for you or your child(ren), you may be able to refuse to go to work. For information on what to do if your employer has not taken effective health and safety measures to protect you and your child, please see the answer to our FAQ above ‘Can my employer dismiss me if I refuse to come to work because I’m worried about coronavirus?’.

Indirect Sex Discrimination – Women

If you don’t want to take your children to work because it would significantly affect your performance or productivity, you may be able to refuse to come into work and/or bring a claim against your employer for indirect sex discrimination.

You could argue that your employer’s policy of requiring employees with children to bring their children to work disproportionately impacts women who generally have more childcare responsibilities. However, remember that an employer can theoretically justify indirect discrimination if they have a legitimate business need for their actions.

You can find more information on discrimination and flexible working here.

Alternatives – taking time off work and flexible working

You might consider taking leave or adopting a flexible working arrangement (e.g. working from home) to avoid bringing your child into work until alternative childcare becomes available. There’s more information about the leave you might be able to take in our FAQ response ‘Am I allowed time off work if I have to care for my children (because I have no childcare available) or someone else who depends on me?’ 

This advice applies in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you live in another part of the UK, the law may differ. Please call our helpline for more details.

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

DonateReceive updates button

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.