Spanish holidays: how should employers handle staff quarantine?

Marina Wilson and Philip Bradby arrive at Gatwick Airport yesterday following the announcement that holidaymakers have to quarantine for 14 days. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Employers should prepare policies that outline how they will handle employees who are forced to quarantine after travelling abroad.

On Saturday the government announced that anyone returning from mainland Spain, the Balearic islands and the Canary islands from Sunday 26 July would have to self-isolate for two weeks, after data showed a surge in coronavirus cases.

Holidaymakers returning to UK airports have been sharing their frustration at the government’s announcement because they are now unable to return to work unless they can do so from home.

The government insisted that no worker should be penalised for self-isolating, but Labour has suggested that staff will be forced to go back to work because they won’t qualify for sick pay. The official advice from the government is that employees are not entitled to statutory sick pay if they’re self-isolating after returning to the UK.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, said no worker following quarantine guidance should be penalised by employers, including by being put onto sick pay, adding: “We are changing the rules – the law is changed in relation to holidaymakers and travellers – and of course we expect employers show those employees who will have to quarantine because of the law the flexibility they need.

“If someone is following the law in relation to quarantine and self-isolating the way they should, they can’t have penalties taken against them.”

However, Jonathan Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said the lack of sick pay will mean many people will be forced to go to work, when they should be self-isolating.

“There are a whole raft of people who cannot afford to isolate because of the circumstances of their employment and if it comes to a choice between putting food on your table and feeding your family or losing your job, you’re going to put food on your table aren’t you? Even if that means you’re spreading the virus.”

Anita Rai, partner and head of employment at JMW Solicitors, said: “As things stand, there is nothing that would legally entitle an employee to continue on full pay… Employers have been told to be flexible and are encouraged to do what they can to avoid penalising employees.

“Obviously from an employee’s perspective, this is sudden and unexpected and for many, their holidays will have been ruined as they worry about their jobs and how they are going to maintain their earning levels for the 14-day quarantine period.

“Although it sounds unfair, they cannot go to their employers and demand full pay by saying they are happy and ready to work but the new rules mean they cannot physically do so. There is not even an entitlement to statutory sick pay during the new 14-day quarantine period.”

Rai suggested that employers should formulate policies now on how to handle the situation since the summer holiday season has only just begun. “A policy statement which tells all employees who do have plans to go abroad, that in light of what has happened in Spain, it is clear that the rules can change at very short notice, and if that does happen going forward, then the company policy from now on will be ‘X’.

Given the nature of this pandemic and speed at which decisions and interventions are having to be made, more must be done to cushion the blow for those workers who are hardest hit as a result” – Philip Richardson, partner, Stephensons

“‘X’ might be no pay or a requirement to work from home or whatever works for that employer. At least this way, employees know the risks if they choose to travel abroad beforehand and can make an informed decision.”

Philip Richardson, head of employment at Stephensons said: “Those who find themselves having to quarantine for 14 days are relying on the goodwill and understanding of their employer to support them on their return, however for those unable to work from home there is a real risk of going two weeks without any pay whatsoever.

“Unfortunately there is little protection for these workers and no guaranteed right to statutory sick pay if you are isolating at home for the sole reason of travelling back from a foreign country. Given the nature of this pandemic and speed at which decisions and interventions are having to be made, more must be done to cushion the blow for those workers who are hardest hit as a result.”

Rai advised employers to be creative in helping employees work from home as far as possible for the 14-day quarantine period.

“Even if the employee’s ‘normal’ job cannot be done from home, perhaps explore if there is anything else that the employee could be doing remotely which would benefit the company but also enable the employee to stay at their normal pay.

“Where this absolutely cannot be accommodated, employers should take a view on what they can afford to pay the affected employees for the 14-day period and speak to the affected employees about this. Immediately announcing that anyone returning from Spain will not be paid for the 14 days that they cannot come back to work will not go down well from anyone’s perspective. Even if that does need to be the ultimate outcome, how this is communicated and being able to demonstrate that all other avenues have been explored, will be paramount.”

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