A summary of the changes introduced by the Coronavirus Act 2020 that employers need to know including amendments to the statutory sick pay (SSP) regime and the introduction of emergency volunteering leave.
The Coronavirus Act came into force on 25 March 2020. However, the employment aspects of the act required secondary regulations before those provisions could take effect. Those regulations have now been published and we look at what this means for employers.
A number of temporary changes have been made to the SSP regime in light of the current pandemic.
The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020 temporarily suspend the waiting provisions to allow SSP to be paid from the first day of coronavirus-related incapacity provided the period of incapacity arose on or after 13 March 2020.
The regulations also clarify what coronavirus related incapacity means so that it covers an employee who:
- has symptoms of coronavirus, however mild, and is staying at home for seven days, beginning with the day the symptoms started;
- lives with someone who is isolating because they have symptoms of coronavirus, however mild, and is staying at home for seven days beginning with the day that individual’s symptoms started and that employee is staying at home for 14 days, beginning with the first day the individual’s started symptoms;
- is staying at home because someone they live with has symptoms and the employee develops coronavirus symptoms, however mild, and is staying at home for seven days, beginning with the day on which their symptoms started – the requirement for the employee to stay at home for 14 days, in the above bullet point, no longer applies.
Symptoms of coronavirus are also defined as the following:
- the recent onset of a continuous cough;
- the recent onset of a high temperature;
- the recent onset of both a continuous cough and a high temperature; or
- any other symptoms of coronavirus specified by the chief medical officer or one of the deputy chief medical officers.
It is clear from the regulations that employees who are socially distancing because they are classed as vulnerable in line with government guidance will not be entitled to SSP where they are unable to work from home. Instead employers should consider other alternatives such as placing employees on furlough leave. These amendments will be kept under review by the secretary of state in line with the Coronavirus Act 2020. The government has also introduced on-line isolation notes which can be used by employees to provide evidence to their employers that they have had to self-isolate due to coronavirus and cannot work, either because they have symptoms themselves or because they live with someone who has symptoms. Employees can still self-certify for the first seven days of sickness absence and after this time can now provide an isolation note as satisfactory evidence of inability to work where they are self-isolating. The notes can be obtained through the NHS website, NHS 111 online or the NHS App. After answering a number of questions, the isolation note will be emailed to the employee or a family member, friend or directly to the employer.
Emergency volunteering leave
Emergency volunteering leave is a new statutory right introduced by the government to allow workers to take leave from their employment to volunteer in the health or social care sectors in order to alleviate the pressure on these essential services.
Any worker, subject to the exceptions set out below, is entitled to undertake emergency volunteering leave, provided the employee has first obtained an emergency volunteering certificate from the appropriate authority (a local authority, the NHS Commissioning Board or the Department of Health) and given their employer at least three working days’ notice in writing together with a copy of the certificate.
There are certain situations, however, when an employee is not entitled to undertake a period of emergency volunteering leave, including where:
- the employer has less than 10 employees;
- the employee is employed by the crown;
- the employee is a Parliamentary staff member or employee of the devolved assemblies;
- the employee is employed in the police service (although employees employed within the police service in Northern Ireland are eligible to undertake emergency volunteering leave); or
- other employees defined in subsequent regulations.
Emergency volunteering leave can be taken in blocks of either two, three or four consecutive weeks and must begin and end in the same volunteering period. Initially there will be one 16-week volunteering period which begins on the day the legislation came into force, but subsequent periods can be set by the secretary of state for health and social care.
There is no provision for employers to refuse leave, for example because of the needs of the business.
The right is to statutory unpaid leave but a UK-wide compensation fund will be established to compensate volunteers for loss of earnings, travel and subsistence subject to certain conditions.
Employees who undertake emergency volunteering leave are protected and benefit from all their terms and conditions of employment that would have applied had they not been absent due to emergency volunteering leave. This includes matters connected with the employee’s employment, whether or not they arise under the contract of employment but excludes renumeration including sums payable by way of wages or salary only.
Employees are entitled to return to the job they were employed in prior to undertaking emergency volunteering leave on terms and conditions, no less favourable, than the terms and conditions the employee was employed under prior to taking any period of emergency volunteer leave.