Coronavirus: your rights at work

Updated: 30 November 2021 at 12:00

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 ongoing changes to 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, where possible, people should work from home.

Latest government advice for England

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.

There are additional isolation arrangements in place for close contacts of people who test positive for the Omicron variant.  If you have been advised to isolate by a contract tracing authority in your nation, then you must follow their requirements to isolate.

Details of the arrangements in each devolved nation can be found using the links below.

England

Scotland

Wales

Northern Ireland

Top of page

What should my employer do if any staff test positive for COVID-19?

Employers 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

There may be some exceptions to self-isolating if a staff member has been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, such as when the staff member is fully vaccinated.  This is as long as they themselves do not test positive for COVID-19 or develop symptoms.

However, staff must self-isolate where the contacts are  identified as a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant even if they are fully vaccinated.

You should go to your own country’s advice pages for further details. See the links at the top of the page.

Employers should take all reasonable steps to prevent infection by regular cleaning and by encouraging good hygiene practice.

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.  See the links at the top of the page.

Top of page

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.

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 may be able to access Universal Credit or Employment and Support Allowance.

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).

Top of page

Do I need to have the COVID-19 vaccine?

The COVID-19 vaccine has now been offered to most people over the age of 12 in many areas of the UK.

The vaccine will be administered in two doses for the majority of adults. A third ‘booster jab’ is now available for all over 18s, with priority given to older adults and people over 16 who are at risk. Severely immunosuppressed people over the age of 16 will be offered a fourth dose of the vaccine, as a booster.

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.

There may be additional requirements your employer is required to follow depending on the sector you work in.  See the links at the top of the page.

National information on the vaccination programmes in:

Top of page

Is my employer allowed to ask and record whether I’ve had the vaccine?

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.

There may be additional legal requirements for employers to collect information on staff vaccination status depending on the sector you work in.  See the links at the top of the page.

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

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.

Top of page

How 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.

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.

It 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.

Top of page

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

Since 19th July 2021, people who are disabled, pregnant, over 70 or have an underlying health condition who may have previously been told to ‘shield’, have been advised to follow the same guidance as everyone else, whilst also being advised to think about taking extra precautions to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read our updated advice for people who are vulnerable, were previously shielding, or have family members who were previously shielding.

Top of page

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.

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 where possible people should work from home. See the links at the top of the page for the devolved nations’ guidance.

Where working from home is ending, 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.

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, it maybe they need to continue to work from home as a reasonable adjustment if it is not possible to significantly reduce and mitigate the risks

Where working from home is not feasible, such as for those “public sector employees working in essential services, including education settings,” vulnerable workers should have an individual COVID risk assessment undertaken, in consultation with the individuals with support from union reps to identify additional measures which could be put into place to protect those at higher risk.

If the risks cannot be significantly reduced to enable a safe return to the workplace, then consideration should be given to options of temporary redeployment to duties which can be undertaken from home, with additional training provided where necessary.

Read our working from home and hybrid working guidance

Top of page

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 reduce and control the risks of transmission within the workplace.

Read Gov.uk’s up to date guidance on what employers need to do to make workplaces ‘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 changes to the work environment, activities, attendance levels and any review or changes to risk assessments, prior to those changes being implemented.

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 via 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.

Top of page

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.

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.

Top of page

Social distancing in the workplace

The legal requirements of social distancing rules have been removed across the UK. Effective ventilation, increased cleaning regimes and maintaining distance wherever possible remains a proven way of reducing transmission and exposure risks of the virus in the workplace. The virus spreads more easily when in close contact with people in an enclosed workspace.

Where social distancing cannot be maintained, then additional control measures should also be considered.

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).

Top of page

Do I need to cover my face in the workplace?

The legal requirement to wear face coverings covers shops and when on public transport in England. Requirements vary slightly in other parts of the UK with face coverings mandatory on public transport and many indoor areas.

For the latest government guidance on face coverings see:

Also read our guidance on PPE for more information.

Top of page

Ventilation

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.

Read our more in-depth guidance on ventilation (PDF)

Gov.uk advice on ventilation

Top of page

Do I need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

This depends on what you do, where, and with whom 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.

Read more on our PPE page

Top of page

Has the Job Retention Scheme (furlough) ended?

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.

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

Top of page

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.

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.

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:

Attending a face to face health assessment during COVID-19 (Gov.uk)

See also the government guidance on claiming benefits during the pandemic.

Top of page

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.

Read our guide for people with caring responsibilities.

Top of page

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.

Further information on COVID-19 risks for Black staff and other vulnerable groups can be found here: COVID risk for Black staff and other vulnerable groups | health news | News | UNISON National

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.

Further information for Black workers

Top of page

If you are pregnant

If you are pregnant the government no longer advises that you should work from home, in England. If you are pregnant and unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, you should take a more precautionary approach. Your employer should undertake a workplace risk assessment and where appropriate, consider redeploying you and maximising the potential for home working. Where adjustments to your work environment and role are not possible and alternative work cannot be found, you should be suspended on paid leave.

Read our detailed advice for pregnant workers

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.

Read the Government Advice for Pregnant Workers

Advice if you are in Scotland

Advice if you are in Wales

You may have additional rights under the Equality Act 2010 if you are disabled as well as being pregnant.

Speak to your UNISON branch if you think your employer is not following the guidance.

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.

See the government advice

Top of page

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.

Top of page

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.

Top of page

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.

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.

Top of page

How is my pension affected by COVID-19?

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

Pensions Q&A

Top of page

Resources