Coronavirus germs

Coronavirus: your rights at work

Updated: 02 March 2021 at 11:50

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.

On 4 January 2021 national lockdowns were announced for England and Scotland. Lockdown restrictions remain in place across the country, although primary schools have started to re-open in Scotland and Wales. Schools in England are preparing to reopen on 8 March 2021.

See the joint union checklist for schools (PDF)

Current guidance can be found at:

The government’s advice for England

Guidance on restrictions in the devolved nations:

Do I need to have the COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccination programme is now being rolled out to priority groups. The priority groups who will be vaccinated first include care home residents, health and care staff, the elderly and the clinically extremely vulnerable.

The vaccine will be administered in two doses, as explained in this statement from the UK’s chief medical officers about the prioritisation of the first dose of the vaccine.

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.

Please see specific information for healthcare staff on our Health sector page

From 11 February, social care workers who have not yet received a vaccine will be able to book one directly on the NHS website; see our specific information for social care staff.

The TUC’s view is that getting vaccinated must not be made a condition of employment or access to public services and that staff should be given paid time-off to get vaccinated.

The Prime Minister has indicated that the government does not plan to make the vaccine mandatory.

National information on the vaccination programmes in:

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.

Research survey for health and social care workers

If you are a frontline health or social care worker in the UK, researchers would like to hear about your views and experiences on the COVID-19 vaccine in a short 10-minute survey.

Take the survey

This research is being conducted by the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Immunisation, a research partnership between the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Public Health England, in collaboration with the NHS Race and Health Observatory.

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Can I get tested for COVID-19?

Find out if you are eligible for a test and get Guidance on coronavirus testing,

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?

Staff who can work from home should continue to do so during the current lockdown.

Mass testing should not be used by your employer to require you to come into the workplace.

Current advice is that the mass testing currently does not eliminate risk, and there is still uncertainty regarding the accuracy of the methods currently in use.

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.

Can my employer make me use the NHS app?

No, as the NHS’s website says here, your employer cannot force you to download and use the NHS track and tract app.

What is UNISON’s position on the app?

Every person who downloads the NHS COVID-19 app will be helping in the fight against coronavirus. The app helps the NHS understand where and how quickly the virus is spreading and respond effectively.

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If you think you or someone you live with has coronavirus

For the latest information on symptoms, what you should do and how long you should self-isolate, see the “staying at home information” from the NHS:

England

Scotland

Wales

Northern Ireland

The self-isolation period is now 10 days.

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.

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If I have to self-isolate, will I be paid?

If you can’t work while you are self-isolating because  of  COVID-19, statutory sick pay (SSP) is now 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 are concerned your employer is not following the guidance.

Please note that if you are required to self-isolate because you have returned to the UK from a country which does not have exemption from government restrictions on non-essential travel, the rules are different. Whether you are paid or get sick pay will depend on your contract.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you need help to understand what pay you are entitled to.

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.

Get an isolation note

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).

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If you are disabled, over 70 or have an underlying health condition or told to shield

The UK Government recently announced an increase in the numbers of people within the shielding category. Individuals that are added to this group are now being sent letters by the NHS informing of them of their new status.

If you fit any of these descriptions, or you have recently been told to shield, read our advice on your rights at work, home working and shielding,  and what to do if family members have been told to shield.

COVID-19, disabled, older and shielding workers

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Should I be working from home?

During the current lockdown, the governments in all four nations advise that you should stay at home, and that includes working from home where it is reasonably possible for you to do so.

Read our Coronavirus and home-working guidance

What if I have to go to my regular workplace?

Your employers must have carried out a risk assessment to ensure that your workplace meets government guidelines and do everything they reasonably can to make your workplace ‘COVID-secure’.

Up to date guidance on what employers need to do to make workplaces ‘COVID-secure’ can be found here.

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.

With schools re-opening in Scotland and Wales and planned school openings in England, we have specific advice for schools and early years workers.

See also the joint union safety checklist for schools (PDF)

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.

For more information on what employers should do to keep their workplaces safe, please read our How to work safely leaflet (PDF).

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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 on 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.

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), and increased understanding of how the virus is transmitted (by for example new variants etc).

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.

Research has shown that Black, disabled and other vulnerable workers are at increased risk of infection, serious illness and death through COVID-19.

Further information can be found in our sector-specific advice (links at the top of the page). The joint unions have published joint guidance for the fuller opening of schools scheduled for 8 March.

More detailed information about risk assessment

We need you to help us make workplaces safer: Find out how to become a Safety Rep

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.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has produced guidance for employers in the light of COVID-19.

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.

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Social distancing in the workplace

Your employer is required to keep your workplace COVID-secure through social distancing, good hygiene and other measures including wearing face coverings.

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).

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Do I need to cover my face in the workplace?

Different regulations exist for wearing face coverings in different parts of the UK.

Gov.uk advice on face-coverings

Also read our guidance on PPE for more information.

Face coverings such as a scarf, bandana or mask must not be used as a replacement for PPE.  They do not provide the protection against the risk of infection that PPE such as certified face masks do.

Advice may also vary according to the sector you are working in. Please ensure that you check the up to date information on our sector advice pages at the top of this page.

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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.

For other groups of staff other measures such as working from home, hand hygiene, social distancing and shielding those most at risk are most effective. The best protection against COVID-19 is, if possible, to remove yourself from any sources of infection. That is why we have campaigned to make employers comply with social distancing guidelines.

Sometimes, keeping two metres apart is not practical, for example, when you are looking after children in schools or caring for vulnerable adults. This will mean some form of PPE may be required. Our PPE guide provides further advice on this.

It’s important that PPE is concentrated on those who need and are trained in its use. Unnecessary and incorrectly used PPE may put yourselves, colleagues, family and friends at additional risk. The virus lives longer on plastics than ordinary clothes, so if not correctly used and disposed of items such as masks can become vessels for spreading infection.

Read more on our PPE page

If you need protective equipment (PPE) to do your job

If PPE is needed, because social distancing and other measure are insufficient, your employer has a duty to provide it so you can do your job safely.

We have asked government ministers to resolve problems with the supply of equipment and to provide clearer advice about what you need to protect you at work.

There is a 24-hour employer helpline to report any shortages in health and social care providers in England.

We have a page of PPE detailed advice here

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How does the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) work?

The UK government announced the extension of the ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ in a bid to avoid mass redundancies.

The Job Retention Scheme (JRS) is now extended until the end of April 2021.

Further information on furlough and the Job Retention Scheme.

UNISON’s legal guidance on the JRS, furlough and redundancies

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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.

Use our benefits checker to see what you’re entitled to.

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What happens if I receive sickness or disability-related benefits?

Face-to-face health assessments for sickness and disability benefits remain suspended. Interviews and assessments will be done by telephone.

Find out more on the gov.uk website

This means you should continue to receive PIP (personal independence payments), ESA (employment support allowance) and industrial injuries disablement benefit without having to attend a face-to-face appointment but you may be contacted to complete a review or re-assessment form.

Government guidance on claiming benefits in light of COVID-19

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What if childcare is a problem?

Do I have to go to work if my children can’t go to school or childcare is not available?

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.

Read our guide for people with caring responsibilities.

The TUC is calling for a temporary legal right to access the furlough scheme for parents and those with caring responsibilities who have had these significantly disrupted due to coronavirus restrictions. See details of recent research and recommendations (Jan 2021).

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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.

Read the interview with our Head of Equality Gloria Mills

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.

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.

We have produced a leaflet specifically for Black workers on rights at work (PDF).

Our Black members are leading discussions around the wider issues of racism the pandemic is revealing.

Our health team has made a film to help the discussion:

Watch the video 

Researchers are keen to hear views and experiences of the COVID-19 vaccine from black workers delivering frontline health or social care in the UK. UNISON is supporting research being conducted by the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Immunisation, a research partnership between the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Public Health England, in collaboration with the NHS Race and Health Observatory.

Take the survey

If you are pregnant

If you are pregnant the government has issued “strong advice” that you should work from home, if possible and be particularly stringent about ‘social distancing’.

Read our detailed advice for pregnant workers

What if I’m pregnant and also have a heart condition?

If you fall into this category you should have received a letter from the government about “shielding”, which is a way of protecting very vulnerable people from the virus.

Read our detailed advice on pregnant workers 

Read the full advice on protecting yourself if you’re at high risk from coronavirus on the government website.

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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.

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Are you experiencing ongoing symptoms of COVID-19?

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.

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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?

Foreign travel to and from the UK is currently very restricted, and the rules are changing frequently, sometime with little notice. From the 18th January 2021 all travellers to the UK, including UK nationals, must show a negative COVID-19 test before being allowed to travel. You are likely to be expected to self-isolate on return from many foreign countries regardless of the test result.

You may also be unable to return as planned if you test positive for COVID-19 while abroad.

See the government’s advice, which can change at short notice

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.

If you have to travel abroad for a permitted reason, speak to your employer before you travel about any arrangements to cover any self-isolation period when you return. These should be clear, understood and agreed by both you and your employer before you travel.

If you need any help in finding this information contact your local branch.

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How is my pension affected by COVID-19?

We’ve put together a Q&A on coronavirus and pensions.

Pensions Q&A

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