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Is fear forcing employees to work when they should self-isolate


Mon 25 January, 2021

lady in mask in front of laptop

Job insecurity and financial worries is causing employees to break the law and attend work when they should be self-isolating, according to research.

An employee who should be self-isolating should not attend work and an employer should not force or pressure them to do so.

You must self-isolate and not attend work if you have tested positive for Covid-19, are showing symptoms or if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive or has symptoms (1)

There is a legal duty to self-isolate, which was introduced in September 2020, to ensure compliance and reduce the spread of Covid-19

Fines for those breaking the rules start at £1,000 and can increase up to £10,000 for repeat offenders.

A poll commissioned by the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), which quizzed 1,172 UK workers, found (2)

  • Around one-in-25 (4%) British workers has worked within 10 days of a positive test, rising to one-in-ten (10%) of those in insecure work such as a zero-hours contract, agency work or the gig economy 
  • 6% of British workers have worked with Covid-19 symptoms, rising to 8% of insecure workers and 13% of the self-employed 
  • 12% have been ordered into work when they could have easily and more safely worked from home 
  • Only 16% think Statutory Sick Pay is sufficient to meet their needs. 

In some cases  an employee who has to self-isolate may not actually be sick or have symptoms.

They may simply have been in close  contact with someone who has tested positive or displayed symptoms associated with the virus.

Employers should be supportive of any employee who has to self-isolate.

Workers forced to stay at home may receive either contractual sick pay or Statutory Sick Pay.  The current rate of SSP is £95.85 per week (3)

Last year the Trades Union Congress (TUC) warned that more than 4 in 10 workers would be plunged into financial hardship if forced to self-isolate for two weeks on SSP (4).  The TUC called on the government to increase SSP to £320 per week.

Employers should consider the worker’s employment contract, use its discretion, and be prepared to make exceptions to usual policies when deciding how best to support a worker who has to self-isolate.

If an employee is told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace or the NHS COVID-19 app, and they cannot work from home, they may be entitled to a payment of £500 from their local authority through the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme (5). The scheme is due to end on 31 January 2021.

Employees in self-isolation need to follow their workplace’s usual sickness reporting process.

If employees are self-isolating and cannot work because of Covid-19 they can get an ‘isolation note’ online from NHS 111(6). They do not have to go to their GP or a hospital.

An isolation note is only for people who:

  • Have symptoms of coronavirus.
  • Live with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus.
  • Are in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus.
  • Have been told to self-isolate by a test and trace service.

The government has encouraged employers to be flexible in the evidence required, which is detailed in 14 published guides covering a range of different areas of work (7).

Some businesses may need to use more than one of the guides to think through what is needed to keep people safe.

There is different guidance for: schools, further education and childcare providers, weddings and civil partnership ceremonies and receptions and celebrations public transport operators.


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For employment law advice or if you are affected or want information and support by any of the issues in this article please give us a call. 0333 772 0611


1)Self isolation [Internet] [Cited 25.1.21]

2)RSA poll [Internet] [Cited 25.1.21]

3)Sick pay [Internet]  [Cited 25.1.21]

4)Workers plunged into financial hardship [Internet]    [Cited 25.1.21]

5)Test and trace support payment scheme [Internet]    [Cited 25.1.21]

6)Isolation note [Internet] ] [Cited 25.1.21]

7)Published guidelines [Internet]  [Cited 25.1.21]


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