Updated: 1 October 2021 at 112:30
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been fighting to protect UNISON members who are at the forefront of the COVID-19 response.
We are working proactively with the UK governments, employers, and other bodies to keep you safe at work.
The UK Government and other devolved parliaments have outlined plans for the easing of restrictions. Different approaches are being taken by each country.
The information below reflects the legislation and guidance as currently applied.
In England, the Government is no longer instructing people to work from home and expects and recommends a gradual return to workplaces.
The Governments of Cymru/Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland continue to advise that people work from home if it is reasonable to do so.
For sector-specific advice see:
- Education workers
- Healthcare workers
- Social care workers
- Local government workers
- Police staff
- Energy workers
- Water Environment and Transport workers
- If you think you or someone you live with has coronavirus
- What should my employer do if any staff test positive for COVID-19?
- If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?
- What if my employer has said I don’t need to self isolate?
- Do I need to have the COVID-19 vaccine?
- Is my employer allowed to ask and record whether I’ve had the vaccine?
- Can I get tested for COVID-19?
- If you are disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition or were previously told to shield
- Should I be working from home?
- What if I have to go to my regular workplace?
- What if I don’t feel my workplace is safe?
- Social distancing in the workplace
- Do I need to cover my face in the workplace?
- Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
- How does the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) work?
- What help is available if I am struggling financially?
- What if childcare is a problem?
- Are Black workers more at risk from COVID-19?
- If you are pregnant
- Is coronavirus affecting your mental health?
- Are you experiencing ongoing symptoms of long COVID?
- How does coronavirus affect my entitlement to carry over leave to next year?
- What if I need to travel abroad?
- How is my pension affected by COVID-19?
If you think you or someone you live with has coronavirus
People who test positive or show symptoms will still be legally required to self-isolate for 10 days. The self-isolation period has changed for individuals who have been double vaccinated and will not have to self-isolate if they meet set criteria. Details of the arrangements in each devolved nation can be found using the links below.
What should my employer do if any staff test positive for COVID-19?
Employers in England must ensure any of their staff self-isolate if they have
- tested positive for coronavirus
- been in close recent contact with someone who has tested positive and received a notification to self-isolate from NHS Test and Trace
Employers may need to keep staff informed about COVID-19 cases in their workplace but should not name the individual. In any case, employers should take all reasonable steps to prevent infection by regular cleaning and by encouraging good hygiene practice.
If there is more than one case of COVID-19 in a workplace, employers should contact their local health protection team to report the suspected outbreak who then will then undertake their own risk assessment, advise the employer on what further steps may be required.
Further advice on what employers should do, including the support they should provide for staff who are required to self-isolate is available on the government website.
There may be additional steps your employer is required to take depending on the sector you work in.
If you work in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland you should go your own country’s advice pages. See the links at the top of the page.
Health and social care staff may also be subject to different requirements.
If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?
If you can’t work while you are self-isolating because you are ill with COVID-19, statutory sick pay (SSP) is available from the first day you are off sick. If you are self- isolating but you are not sick, you may be expected to work from home, on full pay.
Speak to your UNISON branch if you need help to understand what pay you are entitled to or if you are concerned that your employer is not following the guidance on self-isolation.
If you live with someone who has symptoms of coronavirus, you can get an isolation note to send to your employer as proof you need to stay off work. You do not need to get a note from a GP.
If you are paid less than £120 a week you will be able to access Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance more easily.
If you’re on a zero-hours contract you are not entitled to statutory sick pay unless you can demonstrate that you earn at least £120 per week from your employer.
We’re urging the government to help those on zero-hours contracts.
If you get contractual sick pay (a rate agreed by your employer), it’s good practice to ensure that such absence is not counted towards any sickness absence policy triggers points.
This has been agreed for NHS staff and the majority of local government staff (ie those covered by national joint council (NJC) terms and conditions and the Scottish Joint Council).
What if my employer has said I don’t need to self isolate?
The UK Government and devolved nations now allow individuals who have been double vaccinated to be exempt from contact self isolation if they have been notified that they have had close contact with someone with COVID-19. All four countries still advise that a PCR test is taken at varying intervals
Specific guidance has been issued for those working in health and social care settings.
See the UK government’s new guidance for England on Test and Trace
The Scottish Government has also updated their guidance.
See also, guidance for Northern Ireland.
Self isolation requirements remain in place for workers who have tested positive for coronavirus or for contacts who develop symptoms, regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.
You will still need to self isolate if you are an adult who has not been fully vaccinated, and you are identified by contact tracers as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. Or you are an adult who lives with someone who tests positive (or has COVID symptoms) and you are not fully vaccinated.
Do I need to have the COVID-19 vaccine?
The COVID-19 vaccine has now been offered to most people in the over-50 age groups, as well as care home residents, health and care staff, and the clinically extremely vulnerable. It is now being extended to all people over 16 in many areas of the UK.
The vaccine will be administered in two doses for the majority of people. People who have a severely weakened immune system are to be offered a third COVID-19 jab. This extra dose will be offered to anyone over 12 who was severely immunosuppressed at the time of their first or second dose, including those with leukaemia, advanced HIV, and recent organ transplants.
Even if you and the people you work with have been vaccinated, you should continue to follow infection prevention control measures and wear appropriate PPE. The vaccine provides increased protection, but the safety measures that have been in place since the start of the pandemic are still necessary.
If your employer is asking you to reduce safety measures after being vaccinated, you should contact your UNISON branch for advice.
Social care workers who have not yet received a vaccine can book one directly on the NHS website; see our specific information for social care staff.
National information on the vaccination programmes in:
Is my employer allowed to ask and record whether I’ve had the vaccine?
This will depend on the type of workplace and the type of work you are doing. Data about an individual’s health, including vaccination status, is a ‘special category’ under the General Data Protection Regulations, meaning that an employer can only lawfully collect and process health data in certain circumstances.
These circumstances will depend on the sector you work in, the kind of work you do and any health and safety risks in your workplace. The Information Commissioner’s website gives the following examples of when collecting this data would be justified
If the employees:
- work somewhere where they are more likely to encounter those infected with COVID-19; or
- could pose a risk to clinically vulnerable individuals,
However, they add, if employers only keep on record of who is vaccinated for monitoring purposes, it is more difficult to justify holding this information.
Whether someone’s work would make them more likely to encounter those infected with COVID or could pose a risk to clinically vulnerable individuals, would need to be informed by a health and safety risk assessment.
Vaccination is just one measure to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID in the workplace and your employer’s health and safety risk assessment should identify what other measures need to be put in place to protect staff. For further information read our Working Safely guidance
See our page on COVID advice for social care workers for more information.
Our statement on the Vaccination Programme
We fully support a speedy, safe and effective roll-out of the Government’s vaccination programme.
The programme should continue to be under the management and direction of the NHS, and we acknowledge a clear role for other partners such as pharmacies and local authorities in delivering the vaccine locally.
We believe the programme is the light at the end of the tunnel and we are happy to work with others to play our part.
Can I get tested for COVID-19?
Find out if you are eligible for a test and get Guidance on coronavirus testing.
If you test positive for COVID-19 with a lateral flow test you will need to self-isolate and book a PCR test to confirm the result.
Testing is voluntary and your employer should not insist you request a test.
See more information for the devolved nations:
Does mass testing make it safe for me to return to work?
Mass testing should not be used by your employer to require you to come into the workplace if you have been told to self-isolate.
Current advice is that mass testing currently does not eliminate risk, and there is still uncertainty regarding the accuracy of the methods currently in use.
Mass testing is not a replacement for other important measures such as social distancing, good personal hygiene and optimal ventilation requirements which are used to stop the spread of the virus.
Where it is necessary for you to go to work, any mass testing (such as “lateral flow” tests) must be used along with infection prevention and control measures, as required by government guidance and workplace risk assessments.
Where an employer uses PCR testing this should remain in place.
If you are disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition or were previously told to shield
People who are disabled, pregnant, over 70 or have an underlying health condition should take extra precautions to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic and may have previously been told to ‘shield’.
On 12 July 2021 government issued new advice on ‘shielding’ for disabled and vulnerable people in advance of the ending of most restrictions in England from 19 July 2021.
If you have been asked to shield and you work in a school, please see the joint union guidance for vulnerable workers (PDF).
Should I be working from home?
Working from home remains the most effective way of reducing workplace exposure to the virus and as a minimum, employers should continue to follow national government instructions and guidance on home working.
From 19 July 2021 the government in England is no longer instructing people to work from home where they can and expects and recommends a gradual return over the Summer.
Employers should implement a phased return to the workplace and a rota based system to ensure the environment is not crowded. They should also recognise that some workers will be anxious about a return and should support staff by for example, allowing them to stagger their journeys on public transport to and from work at less busy times.
Vulnerable workers may need to continue to work from home. Consultation should take place with union reps on any plans to move to permanent home working or a mixture of home and employer workplace (so-called hybrid working)
When proposing a gradual return to the usual workplace, employers must consider the risks to staff who are more vulnerable to infection including those who are Black, disabled, over 70, have underlying health conditions, those who are exempt for vaccination due to health conditions and those immunocompromised and immunosuppressed individuals who may not have responded so well to the vaccine .
Where working from home is not feasible, such as for those “public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings,” decisions about working in the normal workplace should be based on a thorough COVID secure risk assessment.
This should be undertaken for all roles in the workplace, taking account of additional risks for vulnerable groups including if you are pregnant, have an underlying health condition or are a disabled person.
What if I have to go to my regular workplace?
Regardless of the removal of some or all restrictions in parts of the UK, and moves towards a gradual return to the workplace for those who have been working from home, your employer must have carried out a risk assessment to ensure that your workplace meets government and Health and Safety Executive guidelines and do everything they reasonably can to make your workplace ‘COVID-secure’.
For more information on what employers should do to keep their workplaces safe, please read our How to work safely leaflet (PDF).
Employers should consult staff and union safety reps on any proposals regarding making the workplace safe, regarding making the workplace safe, before you return to the workplace.
If you have concerns about attending your workplace speak to your local UNISON rep and discuss any issues with your employer.
Employers must, in particular, consider the risks to staff who are most vulnerable to infection, so please refer to our advice for those are Black, disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition.
If you work in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland please refer to your own country’s advice pages.
Specific guidance for members working in healthcare, social care and schools can be found in the sector pages can be found in the links at the top of the page.
What is a risk assessment?
If you are attending your normal workplace, your employer must have undertaken a risk assessment to meet the government’s guidance on making workplaces COVID-secure.
A risk assessment is what an employer must do to keep their workers and anybody else who may use their workplaces, safe from harm and must be ‘adequate’, ‘suitable and sufficient’.
It identifies workplace hazards that are likely to cause harm to employees and visitors. COVID-19 is such a hazard and so employers must put in place measures to prevent its spread.
Employers must set out the measures they will take to address the hazards the risk assessment has identified. These must be kept under constant review taking into account changes such as changing government guidance, technological developments (such as vaccines, test and tracing), new variants of concern, infection levels within the local community, and increased understanding of how the virus is transmitted including through airborne aerosols and droplets. They must also be reviewed where there is a cluster of cases or an outbreak in the workplace.
Employers must identify all those for whom they have a duty of care, whether they are staff or service-users, who are classed as being either at most or moderate risk from COVID-19, including those who are exempt for vaccination due to health conditions and those immunocompromised and immunosuppressed individuals who may not have responded so well to the vaccine.
Research has shown that Black, disabled and other vulnerable workers are at increased risk of infection, serious illness and death through COVID-19.
We need you to help us make workplaces safer: Find out how to become a Safety Rep
What if I don’t feel my workplace is safe?
We believe that our members should never be in a situation where they might endanger themselves and others in the course of doing their jobs.
Putting you in that situation is potentially a breach of health and safety law and may spread coronavirus to people in high-risk groups.
As a last resort, when faced with a dangerous working environment which cannot reasonably be avoided, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps) in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger (section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).
Although this is very much a right of last resort, the context of a situation will be key to whether refusing to return to work or any other steps are appropriate. This means that an employee cannot automatically refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.
If you feel you are being put at risk it is crucial to get advice and discuss the situation with your UNISON representative. Contact your branch and if needed you can seek advice from our regional office or legal team.
If you think you’re being discriminated against
The Equality Act 2010 gives workers with protected characteristics, including disabled, pregnant, Black, LGBT+ and women workers, certain rights, including protection from direct and indirect discrimination. For example, employers must ensure that they do not make discriminatory decisions when selecting workers for furloughing and they must continue to provide reasonable adjustments to disabled workers working from home or being redeployed.
If you think you are being discriminated against contact your UNISON branch.
We have been pushing the government to address the disproportionate impact of the crisis on protected groups and we have responded to the parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into this issue.
Social distancing in the workplace
While social distancing rules have been removed in workplaces in England, it remains a way of reducing exposure to the virus in the workplace. The virus spreads more easily when in close contact with people in an enclosed workspace.
Employers should follow national laws and Health and Safety Executive guidance on social distancing and take all reasonable steps to implement as part of their risk assessment. Where social distancing rules don’t apply other measures such as effective ventilation, layout of the workplace and barriers should be implemented as part of an employer’s risk assessment.
Our How to work safely guide (PDF) explains more.
If you live or work in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales you are advised to go your own country’s advice pages (see links at the top of the page).
Do I need to cover my face in the workplace?
The legal requirement to wear face coverings in enclosed public places has been lifted in England, but remains in place in other parts of the UK.
However, the Government still expects and recommends that face coverings are worn in crowded areas where social distancing cannot be maintained such as public transport and where there is poor ventilation, e.g. lifts.
For the latest government guidance on face coverings see:
A well-ventilated workplace is essential to reduce the risk of COVID infection.
Employers are legally required to ensure that workplaces have an adequate supply of fresh air, either through natural ventilation such as opened windows or mechanical systems.
We expect employers to assess the effectiveness of workplace ventilation and take steps to make improvements such as not recirculating air or reducing room capacity. Assessments should also include the risks to staff who drive workplace vehicles and those whose work involves visiting people in their own homes.
Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?
This depends on what you do, where, and with who you work. You are more likely to require PPE if you are providing direct care to service users, or cleaning premises contaminated by COVID-19.
The best protection against COVID-19 is, if possible, to remove yourself and others from any sources of infection. In some jobs, this is not easy or practical. Our PPE guide provides further advice on this.
How does the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) work?
The Job Retention Scheme, also known as furlough, came to an end on 30 September 2021. If you have concerns about how your pay or annual leave were calculated while you were furloughed, contact your branch.
What help is available if I am struggling financially?
Our charity for members, There for You, has reopened its COVID-19 response fund, offering grants of up to £500 to help those whose household incomes have been affected by coronavirus. You can check if you’re eligible and apply here.
If you are on a low income you may be entitled to Universal Credit.
The government announced on 20 March 2020 that Universal Credit will be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year). Working Tax Credit will also be increased by £20 per week (£1,000 a year).
You might also be entitled to more help with your rent. The government has announced that the Local Housing Allowance will be increased to cover more people’s rents.
What happens if I receive sickness or disability-related benefits?
Face to face health assessments have resumed in England, Scotland and Wales.
Government guidance on attending a face-to-face health assessment for a Work Capability Assessment, Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit and Personal Independence Payment can be found here:
What if childcare is a problem?
If you need to stay at home to look after your children, you are legally entitled to unpaid dependant leave. However, many UNISON members will be entitled to paid dependant leave due to agreements negotiated with their employer.
We advise that you explain your situation to your employer, and we would expect your employer to be reasonable in accommodating your circumstances. Some employers have specific arrangements to support parents during the current pandemic.
Are Black workers more at risk from COVID-19?
We are concerned about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black workers and the wider impact on racism that the pandemic is having.
All employers must do an overall risk assessment of the workplace, but they should also carry out a risk assessment specifically for Black staff. The risk assessment should be thorough and take account of your specific circumstances, including any factors that have impacted adversely on you, such as the vaccination process.
Your employer should act immediately on the findings of their risk assessment. This does not necessarily mean treating you exactly the same as other staff, but instead responding to your individual needs and circumstances.
It is also important that you report any safety concerns you have to your employer. However, it is recognised that many Black workers may not feel safe to identify risks and issues without fear of losing their job. If you have concerns about risk assessments or safety at work, contact your branch or speak to your GP or Consultant, if relevant, on what you should do.
Our health team has made a film on the wider issues of racism in the pandemic:
If you are pregnant
If you are pregnant the government no longer advises that you should work from home, in England. You should continue to consider the risks of close contact with others, particularly if you are clinically extremely vulnerable or not yet fully vaccinated.
What if I’m pregnant and also have a heart condition?
If you fall into this category in England you should continue to consider the risks of close contact with others.
Should I get the vaccine if I’m pregnant?
If you are pregnant, you should be offered the vaccine at the same time as others of the same age, or in the same risk category.
Is coronavirus affecting your mental health?
Workers in the NHS and health care can find advice on our health workers page.
The Mental Health Foundation have produced a guide to protecting your mental health during the coronavirus crisis and MIND has produced a helpful guide which will be useful to anyone who has to practice social isolation.
UNISON’s There for You charity can also provide signposting to emotional support.
Are you experiencing ongoing symptoms of long COVID?
Some people who have had COVID-19 (or suspect they have had it) are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ – a series of ongoing symptoms including (but not limited to) extreme fatigue, breathlessness, brain fog and/or loss of taste or smell which may come and go. Some people are still experiencing these ongoing symptoms as long as six months or more after contracting COVID-19.
While ‘Long Covid’ is not yet a formal diagnosis, it is likely that as more research is conducted it could be recognised as a long term health condition and may ultimately qualify as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
We recommend that employers conduct individual risk assessments with any staff who are experiencing ‘Long Covid’ and to make reasonable adjustments for these staff.
Employers should follow our guidance for disabled workers and workers with an underlying health condition.
How does coronavirus affect my entitlement to carry over leave to next year?
The government has provided guidance which applies to England, Scotland and Wales.
Northern Ireland government has also published advice.
See also the specific advice for NJC staff on local annual leave schemes or the new statutory government scheme.
What if I need to travel abroad?
Before making plans to travel abroad, speak to your employer about any arrangements to cover any quarantine period when you return, or any unexpected delays. These should be clear, understood and agreed by both you and your employer before you travel. Bear in mind there are currently heavy restrictions on foreign travel, and you may also be unable to return as planned if you test positive for COVID-19 while abroad, or be asked to quarantine if returning from certain countries.
No-one should suffer hardship for a decision they had no control over and we are calling for employers to make reasonable arrangements and to continue to pay affected staff where possible.
How is my pension affected by COVID-19?
We’ve put together a Q&A on coronavirus and pensions.