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Coronavirus (COVID-19) – School Closures and Childcare

Photograph of an empty classroom from a primary school

Last updated 21 January 2021 to reflect the new rules in force from 5  January 2021.

*PLEASE FOLLOW ANY GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE OR GUIDANCE SPECIFIC TO YOUR LOCAL AREA AS GUIDANCE ON THE CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) IS CHANGING DAILY*

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

Furlough information sheets 

This document of key information about childcare, caring, the clinically extremely vulnerable and furlough might be useful to show to your employer.

Key Info for Employers

What to do if your employer refuses to furlough you.

Key info for employees

My child’s school or bubble has closed as we are in lockdown. Am I allowed time off work to care for my children where the school or childcare facility has closed due to high covid-19 cases? I have no childcare available. Am I entitled to be paid?

Work from home

The Government Guidance provides that you must work from home unless you cannot reasonably do so.  If you have no childcare available due to school closures, and if it is at all possible for you to work from home, you should be allowed to work from home. The impact that working from home has on your employer’s business should not be taken into account when making the decision of whether or not you can work from home, as it would be for a normal flexible working request – the government has advised that insofar as it is possible, you should work from home.

Furlough for childcare

If you can’t work from home because of your role, or if you are unable to work (including from home) due to your caring responsibilities including homeschooling because of school closures because of coronavirus, you can be furloughed for this reason if eligible through the coronavirus job retention scheme. See our Furlough Pages for more information.

The government guidance on the extended scheme updated in November confirms that furlough is available to people who are required to stay home because they have childcare responsibilities resulting from coronavirus.

Many employers are not aware yet that the guidance has changed, so it’s worth telling them that about your childcare problems and alerting them to the wording in the employer guidance:

“If your employee’s health has been affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) or any other conditions, you employee is eligible for the grant and can be furloughed, if they are:

  • unable to work because they are clinically extremely vulnerable, or at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus and following public health guidance
  • unable to work because they have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19), including employees that need to look after children”

The guidance in November for employees titled ‘Check if you’re eligible’ which stated: If you meet the eligibility criteria, you can be furloughed if you’re unable to work (including from home) due to caring responsibilities because of coronavirus, such as caring for children at home because of closed schools and childcare facilities or caring for a vulnerable person in the household.

The issue for parents and carers is that furlough is not an entitlement.  Your employer does not have to agree to furlough you – it is their choice whether they put you on furlough or not, even if they are allowed to do so.

As such, we suggest you stress to your employer how difficult this time is for you and your family, that it will not cost them anything over the 5% contribution to National Insurance Contributions and employer pension contributions and point them to the above guidance.  See our page on furlough for more information.

It could be argued that an employer’s policy to refuse to furlough employees will have a disproportionate impact on women and could amount to indirect sex discrimination. Indirect sex discrimination is where an employer unjustifiably applies a general rule (eg no furlough) which puts women (more than men) at a particular disadvantage. This is because women still tend to have the greater share of childcare obligations. 

Where a woman has her request to be furloughed due to childcare turned down, she may be able to claim indirect sex discrimination under section 19 of the Equality Act 2010. Men cannot usually claim indirect sex discrimination, because this concept depends on showing that one gender (in this case, women) tends to be disadvantaged more than the other by the employer’s rule.  You should take expert advice before trying this type of claim. 

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. 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.

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

Time off for dependants:

You also have the statutory right to take time off for dependants, but this is unpaid, unless that’s a perk in your contract/employer’s policy or practice. Time off for dependants concerns not just children, but other dependants too, like a partner or parent. You can take time off which is necessary because of an unexpected disruption in care arrangements. Time off for dependants usually lasts only a couple of days, because it is aimed to allow you time to organise the care of your dependant. But for now, our view is that depending on your circumstances, this could last for much longer. For many children, in lockdown this is likely to apply. Or if in childcare where their class or bubble may be sent home from school to isolate for 2 weeks if there is a case of coronavirus.  Older relatives who would usually provide childcare may have been told to self-isolate or shield. In today’s circumstances, some people have no other care options they can organise.

Your employer might challenge the time off if they believe the disruption in care is no longer “unexpected”. It is true that if you knew about a situation beforehand, it will be more difficult to show that is was absolutely necessary for you to be off. Your employer can expect you to show that you tried to make alternative arrangements. 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 for a while. Knowing that something will happen in advance does not necessarily mean you cannot have the time off, so long as the time is reasonable and necessary. In the case of Royal Bank of Scotland plc v Harrison [2008], the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that a mother who had two weeks’ notice that her childminder would not be available, and who had tried but was unable to make alternative arrangements for her children, had taken time off for dependants when she was absent from work.

Time off for dependants does not have to be taken in blocks of 1 day. It can be taken for only a few hours. There’s also no limit to how often you can take time off for dependants, the time taken off just has to be reasonable and necessary. For example, if you only need time off work for part of the day, it would be possible for you to continue working for part of the day (or week) but explain that you take time off for dependants for x number of hours (or days) – these will then be unpaid. Unlike flexible working or parental leave, your employer cannot refuse you this time off, as long as it is necessary. You should not be punished for taking this time off (in legal terms, this means you have the right not to be treated unfavourably), so your employer should let you continue working the hours that you are able to work. 

Unpaid parental leave:

You can take unpaid parental leave:

  • You can take parental leave if you are an employee and you have worked for your employer for at least 1 year
  • Your child has to be under 18 years old
  • You can take 4 weeks per child per year
  • Parental leave can be taken in blocks of 1 week at a time (if your child is on DLA or PIP, you can take it in blocks of 1 day)
  • It is normally unpaid, but your employer’s policy might be more generous

The requirements for parental leave set out above are the legal minimum. You should always check your contract and employer’s policies – they may be more generous than the law.

Bear in mind your employer might be able to postpone parental leave if the business would be particularly disrupted (whereas they cannot postpone time off for dependants). However, it may be difficult for an employer to argue that it is reasonable to postpone parental leave in the current circumstances.

Strictly speaking, you need to give 21 days’ notice to take unpaid parental leave, but given the circumstances, your employer may let you take the leave even if you cannot give the required notice.  If your employer insists that you give them 21 days’ notice, you may be able to take time off for dependants to look after your children for this 21 day period. 

If you cannot take unpaid parental leave, for example because you haven’t  worked for your employer for more than 1 year, or you have already taken the maximum amount of parental leave available to you, you could rely on time off for dependants instead (see above). 

Special leave:

If you can take special leave (that your employer has agreed specifically because of the coronavirus or as part as a more general kind of compassionate leave policy that some employers have), then this could be a good option.

Public Funding

If your employer receives public funding which is used for your salary e.g. schools or civil service, then your employer may not be able to use the furlough scheme. We understand that this is because it would amount to a form of double accounting as the role is already funded by the public purse.

However, the government guidance states that if your employer receives public funding for staff costs, and that funding is continuing, employers should continue to pay their staff and not furlough them.

The implication of this is that you could ask your HR department to grant you “special leave” for this time and pay you your salary as normal for the time you have had to take off for COVID related reasons. You are in circumstances where you could request to be furloughed (but for the public funding exemption) under the guidance for employees. 

NHS

There is information on the NHS approach here: https://www.nhsemployers.org/covid19/staff-terms-and-conditions/staff-terms-and-conditions-faqs/pay

You may want to alert your manager to the above guidance to ask that you are paid for the time you need to take off for childcare related to Covid.

If you are a member of a union, you could ask for their support too.

Sick leave (self-isolation):

If you are self-isolating because you (or someone in your household) has symptoms of coronavirus, then you may be able to claim Statutory Sick Pay instead. See our financial support pages for more information.

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.  

The Prime Minister has been asked about parents who are asked to go to work, but have no childcare. On 13 May at Prime Minister’s Questions, he said: “In so far as people may not be able to go back to work because they do not have the childcare that they need, their employers must be understanding. As I said, it is clearly an impediment and a barrier to people’s ability to go back to work if they do not have childcare.” He has promised to look into this. You should point this out to your employer if they are trying to make you come into work and refuse all the options above. You could argue that in forcing you to come to work and refusing any of the solutions that you’ve suggested, they are breaching the duty of trust and confidence they owe you. In practice, this a negotiation.

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. 

My child’s nursery or preschool is open, but I don’t want my child to attend because I am worried about coronavirus. Do I have to send them back 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, such as remote teaching for the majority of students. School Guidance here

Schools have now moved to remote learning for the majority of students and are now closed for face to face teaching due to the latest government guidance but remain open for children of critical and key workers,  vulnerable children and those on an EHCP.  For a complete list of Vulnerable children who can continue to attend school, please see the relevant government guidance here. Many parents are now needing to support children with homeschooling alongside their own work. 

In these circumstances you could ask to be furloughed. See our furlough pages for more information.

Shielding has now been reintroduced in light of the national lockdown or you are in an area with local lockdown rules in force. You will need to check with your local council and public health authority. 

More information for parents about educational settings is available here.

I’m working from home but I’m often interrupted by my children, and my employer insists that I either devote the whole day to work or take the day off unpaid. What can I do?

It is true that, when you are working, your employer has the right to expect that you are devoting your attention to working rather than looking after your children.

However, this is an exceptional situation and many employers are exercising common sense and flexibility to allow employees to reduce or vary their working hours or pattern to enable them to work around childcare needs.

You can ask to be furloughed under the current guidance if you are unable to work (including from home) due to your childcare or caring needs as a result of COVID-19. See our furlough pages for more information. 

Furlough for childcare

If you can’t work from home because of your role, or if you are unable to work (including from home) due to your caring responsibilities including home schooling because of school closures because of coronavirus, you can be furloughed for this reason if eligible through the coronavirus job retention scheme. See our Furlough Pages for more information.

You can also be furloughed on a part time or flexible basis, meaning you can work part time and can be furloughed for days you can’t work. See the FAQs on Flexible Furlough in our furlough pages for more information. 

If you have childcare and/or caring responsibilities and your employer refuses to place you on furlough or flexible furlough, please see our information sheet on what to do if your employer refuses to furlough you.

The government guidance on the extended scheme updated in November confirms that furlough is available to people who are required to stay home because they have childcare responsibilities resulting from coronavirus.

Many employers are not aware yet that the guidance has changed, so it’s worth telling them that about your childcare problems and alerting them to the wording in the employer guidance:

“If your employee’s health has been affected by coronavirus (COVID-19) or any other conditions, you employee is eligible for the grant and can be furloughed, if they are:

  • unable to work because they are clinically extremely vulnerable, or at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus and following public health guidance
  • unable to work because they have caring responsibilities resulting from coronavirus (COVID-19), including employees that need to look after children”

The guidance in November for employees titled ‘Check if you’re eligible’ which stated: If you meet the eligibility criteria, you can be furloughed if you’re unable to work (including from home) due to caring responsibilities because of coronavirus, such as caring for children at home because of closed schools and childcare facilities or caring for a vulnerable person in the household.

The issue for parents and carers is that furlough is not an entitlement.  Your employer does not have to agree to furlough you – it is their choice whether they put you on furlough or not, even if they are allowed to do so.

As such, we suggest you stress to your employer how difficult this time is for you and your family, that it will not cost them anything over the 5% contribution to National Insurance Contributions and employer pension contributions and point them to the above guidance.  See our page on furlough for more information.

If your employer is concerned about too many employees being on furlough at the same time, it might be worth suggesting that your employer could rotate those on furlough which would provide some support to employees with child care difficulties whilst lessening the impact on the employer.

It could be argued that an employer’s policy to refuse to furlough employees will have a disproportionate impact on women and could amount to indirect sex discrimination. Indirect sex discrimination is where an employer unjustifiably applies a general rule (eg no furlough) which puts women (more than men) at a particular disadvantage. This is because women still tend to have the greater share of childcare obligations. 

Where a woman has her request to be furloughed due to childcare turned down, she may be able to claim indirect sex discrimination under section 19 of the Equality Act 2010. Men cannot usually claim indirect sex discrimination, because this concept depends on showing that one gender (in this case, women) tends to be disadvantaged more than the other by the employer’s rule.  You should take expert advice before trying this type of claim. 

Ask for flexible working: If you think working flexibly (e.g. moving your hours around to fit around childcare) is an option in your role then you should raise that with your employer. Explain how the pattern could work for you and them.

If your employer does not agree to your request then you have the option to make a formal request for flexible working. If you only want to change your contract temporarily, you should make this clear. We would suggest asking for the new work pattern to remain in place for as long as the government request people work from home due to coronavirus. Making a formal request may not provide an immediate outcome because your employer has 3 months to get back to you, and they may refuse your request. You can ask your employer to respond in a shorter time-frame, or take some leave while your employer considers your request (see below).

See the section below for more advice if your employer refuses to let you work from home. 

Other options for taking leave: You may be able to use time off for dependants or unpaid parental leave. See our question on taking time off work if you have to look after someone who depends on you. 

Financial support:  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 I be put on furlough if I cannot continue working for childcare caring reasons?

Yes, you can be put on furlough for childcare/caring reasons. See our dedicated page on furlough for more information. 

If you have childcare and/or caring responsibilities and your employer refuses to place you on furlough or flexible furlough, please see our information sheet on what to do if your employer refuses to furlough you.

Other options available would be:

  • taking annual leave
  • using unpaid time off for dependants. Please note that time off for dependants only applies to employees (not workers or the self-employed).
  • Using parental leave. Parents who are employees and have at least one year’s service are entitled to 4 weeks of unpaid parental leave per year per child. There are notice requirements for the leave but in such circumstances your employer may waive these.

If you cannot agree working arrangements which enable you to look after your children and you are worried about the financial implications of taking unpaid leave, see our financial support page for more information.

My child’s school has closed as we are in lockdown and I have no childcare or my child’s class at school or nursery is shut due to a COVID case in the bubble. What can I do about childcare?

If your child’s school is closed or class is sent home because of a coronavirus case in their class or bubble and they are instructed to self isolate, you may need to ask your employer if you can work from home or you can ask to be furloughed for childcare purposes.

If you have childcare and/or caring responsibilities and your employer refuses to place you on furlough or flexible furlough, please see our information sheet on what to do if your employer refuses to furlough you.

If you are unable to work from home or they do not agree to furlough you, you will need to take time off for dependants

If your child’s school has closed due to lockdown or in circumstances where they have not been told to self isolate, you may also be able to use a childminder, nanny or family member/friend for help and create a childcare bubble.  If you live in a household with anyone aged under 14, you can form a childcare bubble. This allows friends or family from one other household to provide informal childcare.

In England, you are now allowed to use a paid childminder to look after your children if you are unable to do so. You may also be able to form a ‘support bubble’ so that one other household (family or friends) can help with childcare.

In Scotlandyou are allowed to use a childminder, but they must limit the number of households they provide childcare for to a maximum of four. Key workers and vulnerable children have priority. You may also be able to form an extended household so that one other household can help with childcare.

In Wales, you can now use informal childcare and formal paid childcare.

In Northern Irelandthe advice currently is that you can use formal and informal childcare.  Family Support NI has more information. People who live alone can also visit one other household indoors to form a small support unit.

I have been asked to return to work, but my child’s school is closed or class is required to isolate due to a COVID case in the bubble. I have no childcare. What can I do?

If your child has been told to isolate or your child’s school is closed, if it is at all possible for you to work from home then you should. The government has advised that anyone who can work from home should do so, even if it is not normally permitted. It may be possible for your employer to make temporary changes to your job so that you can work from home while your child is isolating, for example admin or research that is outside your normal role but that you could do from home during this time.

You could ask to be furloughed for this period, see the questions above and the FAQ on furlough.

If you have childcare and/or caring responsibilities and your employer refuses to place you on furlough or flexible furlough, please see our information sheet on what to do if your employer refuses to furlough you.

You can also be furloughed on a part time or flexible basis, meaning you work part time and are furloughed for days you can’t work. See the FAQs on Flexible Furlough in our furlough pages for more information. 

You may be able to use time off for dependants, parental leave, or another form of leave to stay off work. See the FAQ on taking time off work to look after someone who depends on you.

If your employer is asking you to return to work and you cannot return to work for childcare reasons, you can use our template letter for employees and letter for workers (depending on your employment status) to raise your concerns and discuss staying off work.

If you would like make a more medium- or 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. 


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.

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