English Employers That Don’t Support Workers’ Self-Isolation Face Fines

By Katie Nadworny November 5, 2020
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​Claire Kelly knew before she got the message. The notification from the U.K. National Health Service (NHS) came a day after her friend called—the same friend she'd spent time with the previous weekend—to tell Kelly that she had tested positive for COVID-19. So Kelly was already hunkered down at her home in Clevedon, England, when the NHS informed her that it was a legal requirement for her to self-isolate for two weeks.

"I've had a couple more text messages reminding me, and I've had one phone call from a real person checking that I'm isolating," Kelly said. She has continued her job as a researcher at a local university working from home.

New Law Responds to Rising Infection Rate

While self-isolation has been expected in the U.K. throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, on Sept. 28 a law was passed to criminalize the failure to comply with mandatory self-isolation upon receiving a positive COVID-19 test or being in close contact with someone who has tested positive. Now, refusing to comply is a criminal offense that can be punished with a fine.

"Given the rising infection rate, the theory was that we need to place a positive obligation on people, both employers and employees, around the issue of self-isolation," said Daniella McGuigan, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in London.

Previously, it was expected that people would self-isolate, but there was no mechanism to legally incentivize people to do so. This meant that both employees and employers would sometimes try to get around the need to self-isolate. "Some employers were putting pressure on their employees to come into work," McGuigan said. "Some employees were not being honest with their employer, because they didn't want to get reduced pay and self-isolate."

Now, with the U.K. entering a second wave of the pandemic, there is pressure to make sure that public health guidelines are being followed. Anyone who does not immediately self-isolate upon receiving a notification, or an employer who insists that an asymptomatic employee report to work, can be subject to prosecution and fines. 

"It wouldn't look favorably from an employment perspective either if you're encouraging your employee to commit a criminal offense," McGuigan said.

Nonetheless, it is unclear what qualifies as a valid notification to trigger the self-isolation order. Also, testing issues in the U.K. mean that not everyone is getting tested as needed, and people are encouraged to not get tested if they do not have symptoms. 

Commonsense Approach

"A commonsense approach should be adopted" in implementing the law, McGuigan said. "Err on the side of caution and self-isolate, if you think you should."

Employers are encouraged to allow employees time off if those workers insist they need to stay home and isolate, even absent a notification from a health authority.

The new law applies only to England, not the entire U.K., which can also lead to complications as there is no hard border with Scotland and Wales. This creates inconsistent messaging and approach to the pandemic across all the nations of the U.K., McGuigan said.

Remote Work vs. Statutory Sick Pay

Some people are able to continue their work remotely while in isolation.

However, "if you can't do your work from home, and you're required to be self-isolating, then there also [are] rules in the U.K. where you're entitled to get statutory sick pay," McGuigan said. "Even if you don't have symptoms yourself, you get statutory sick pay from day one of the period of self-isolation."

As the pandemic continues to evolve, including the recent lockdown, the government has worked to keep up with employment legislation that considers employers, employees and public health.

"It's a very fluid situation," McGuigan said. "People are trying to do their best."

Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul. 

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