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COVID-19 and time off

Please note: The guidance is changing along with the government’s plans for ‘Living with COVID’. We'll be updating our guidance as this comes out so please do check back often.

The self-isolation guidance should be followed regardless of the results of any COVID-19 antibody testing or vaccination. 

Self-isolation and annual leave

If you work in the NHS, or for organisations providing commissioned services for the NHS, UK governments have agreed that if staff need to self-isolate in line with official guidance, they will be entitled to special leave on full pay. This special leave should be recorded separately by your employer and it will not affect your entitlements to annual leave, or to your entitlements to carers’ leave or special leave set out in your employers’ local policies. It is possible that staff will require more than one period of self-isolation. Government guidance makes clear that self-isolation will not be discouraged, and the arrangements above will apply to each period of self-isolation.

Sickness and annual leave

If you work in the NHS and you are off sick with COVID-19,  it will not affect your entitlements to annual leave. See below for more information on accrual of annual leave and our section on sick leave within this guide.

Will my entitlements to annual leave change during the COVID-19 pandemic?

No. Existing contractual and statutory entitlements to annual leave and holiday pay will continue to apply throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The only change relates to the carrying over of unused statutory annual leave. The government has amended the Working Time Regulations, which means that workers will be entitled to carry over any unused statutory holiday entitlement for two years. This includes staff who have not been able to take their statutory annual leave due to sickness. 

If you have taken annual leave and have not been paid your normal holiday pay, you need to raise the issue with your employer and ask the reason for this in writing. If need support, contact us.

For NHS staff, entitlement to annual leave is outlined in section 13 of the NHS terms and conditions of service handbook, further information on taking annual leave is available in the NHS Staff Council statement on annual leave during COVID-19. For other staff, entitlement to annual leave should be outlined in their contract of employment.

All workers, wherever they work, have a right under the Working Time Regulations to at least 28 days paid annual leave a year (pro rata for part time staff). This is the equivalent of 5.6 weeks of holiday but can include public holidays.

Can my employer ask me to cancel my annual leave?

The RCN expects employers to protect the health, safety and well-being of all health and care staff. This includes ensuring that nursing and other health care staff can take paid annual leave, as well as being able to take rest periods and breaks during shifts. 

If you have followed your contract and policy on annual leave, and you have obtained the employer’s consent, it may not be reasonable for the employer to unilaterally cancel your leave. This would only be allowed if the contract or local agreement permitted such a cancellation. If your employer did this without any such provision in the contract or in the absence of any emergency situation, e.g. a pandemic, then you could have a claim for breach of contract (including recovery of holiday expenses already incurred).

During this time of unsustainable pressure, the RCN is calling on all health and care employers to put in place appropriate arrangements which ensure that: 

  • Wherever possible, booked annual leave should be honoured. Guidance issued by the DHSC in England confirms that employers should only consider cancelling an individual’s pre-agreed annual leave in exceptional circumstances. 
  • The equality impact of any decision is considered. 
  • Any restrictions on staff taking annual leave are staggered so all staff get to take leave. This has been specifically recommended by the NHS in Scotland.
  • Any restrictions are prioritised in line with the needs of maintaining essential services, following consultation and agreement with local staff sides and trade union representatives. 
  • DHSC guidance for England also reminds employers that they should give the appropriate statutory notice to cancel annual leave and consider whether compensation is appropriate for any out of pocket expenses that a staff member may incur as a result of cancelling their holiday plans. 

If you work in the NHS, please also see the NHS Staff Council statement on annual leave during COVID-19.

If your line manager is trying to cancel your annual leave, in the first instance please check your contract and/or local policy. Please raise the issue with your HR Department or a more senior manager and ask the reason for this in writing. If you need further support, contact us.

Can my employer force me to take annual leave?

The RCN recognises the importance of time away from work for rest and recuperation and therefore encourages our members to utilise their annual leave entitlement, where possible, within the current annual leave year. This should be mutually agreed between staff and managers, in line with local policies. 

If you are unable to take your annual leave due to service pressures, you may be able to carry over some of your annual leave allowance. Please see the government guidance for more information. 

If you work in the NHS or NHS commissioned services please also see the information below:

England 
Northern Ireland
Scotland
Wales

Self-isolation

The governments in  Northern IrelandScotland and Wales have issued stay at home guidance for households with possible COVID-19. It applies to health care workers as well as the general public. In England there is specific guidance for managing healthcare staff with symptoms of a respiratory infection.

If you are not supported by your employer to remain at home as per the guidance, inform your manager in writing that you are following UK government guidance and need to stay away from work. 

You should request adjustments to be made for you to work from home if you are well and it is possible/appropriate. Advise your employer that your will return to your workplace after your period of self-isolation, depending on the circumstances, in accordance with government guidance. Contact us if you need support.  

Sickness

Your employer has a duty of care to you and should take a supportive and collaborative approach during this difficult time. Risk assessments should be undertaken on your return to work and local occupational health should be involved.

If you are experiencing difficulties with your employer, contact us.

Please see our Long COVID guide for more information on your workplace rights and for additional resources. 

The governments across the UK are gradually updating and amending their guidance as part of the process for ‘living with COVID’. The guidance is updated on the country websites as part of the stay at home guidance for households with possible COVID-19 in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In England there is specific guidance for managing healthcare staff with symptoms of a respiratory infection.

Guidance and criteria for ongoing self-isolation of health care workers as well as the general public are based on additional  risks and vaccination status. 

You can read the 'Living with COVID whitepaper' on the NHS England website

Contact tracing arrangements are variable across the four UK countries:

Exposure to COVID-19 at work

The UK government guidance managing healthcare staff with symptoms of a respiratory infection or a positive COVID-19 test result provides advice on the management of staff, and patients or residents in health and social care settings in England, according to exposures, symptoms and test results.

Staff members notified that they are a contact of a COVID-19 case are now not required to self-isolate if they are fully vaccinated.

Staff who test positive, will be able to leave self-isolation and return to work, if they test negative on days 5 and 6 after the date of their initial positive test, 24 hours apart, and providing they are medically fit. This means if a staff member tests negative on the morning of day 6 and were negative 24 hours earlier, they can return to work on day 6. Any staff who are symptomatic should continue to isolate in line with standard infection prevention and control procedures.

Please refer to the guidance above for full details. This guidance was written by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) for health professionals working in this part of the UK, and members are encouraged to check their local policies and relevant national guidance for more information due to the frequency of updates.

If you are in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, please see the relevant guidance:

Northern Ireland - Department of Health letters and urgent communications (see HSS (MD) 59/2021 (23 July 2021))
Scotland - Update on isolation exemptions for health and social care staff
Wales - COVID-19 contacts: guidance for health and social care staff

Your line manager/employer or agency should remain the first point of contact if you are unsure whether you are fit to work.

COVID-19 symptoms and work

The governments in  Northern IrelandScotland and Wales have issued stay at home guidance for households with possible COVID-19. It applies to health care workers as well as the general public. In England there is specific guidance for managing healthcare staff with symptoms of a respiratory infection.

Your line manager/employer or agency should remain the first point of contact if you are unsure whether you are fit to work or require self-isolation.

Nursing students

Students are not classified as employees (unless they are following an apprenticeship with an employment contract). If identified as a contact of someone with COVID-19 they should refer to the policies relevant to their current placement and inform their manager/tutor. This is because there are different risk factors that may affect advice for you to self-isolate, for example vaccination status, or if you are living with someone with COVID-19.

Please contact us if you require further clarity.

The RCN has called on UK governments to ensure that health and care staff do not suffer any financial detriment or loss of pay for being away from work in order to protect public safety.  
Please be aware that this advice does not apply if you are self-isolating due to travel. Please see our travel section.

NHS staff self-isolation pay 

If you work in the NHS you should receive full pay, inclusive of all enhancements when self-isolating in line with the official guidance. This means you should be paid what you would have otherwise earned if you were not in isolation, including any pay enhancements, such as unsocial hours. 

If you’re unsure, speak to your employer to find out what reference period they will be using to calculate your ‘normal’ pay. In the NHS, this should be in line with section 13 of the NHS terms and conditions handbook (annual leave and holiday pay). Please see the NHS employers FAQs on pay for more information

If you work for an outsourced service or an organisation providing commissioned NHS services in England, you will also be entitled to full pay when self -isolating. If you are unclear about this, check with your employer. Also, check your employers’ local policy for any reference period. 

For more information on pay when self-isolating, see guidance issued by governments from across the UK here.

Independent sector self-isolation pay

We expect all other health and care employers to pay their staff full pay during COVID-19 related absences.

If you are self-isolating (apart from reasons relating to travel) and have not been paid your normal full pay, you need to raise the issue with your employer and ask the reason for this in writing. You can use this template letter to email or write to your manager asking for full pay for your COVID-19 related absence. This should be done before contacting the RCN for further advice. 

If you have your employer’s written response (or they haven't responded within a few days) and you haven’t been able to resolve the issue, you should raise your concerns with your local RCN representative directly or by contacting us

Bank workers self-isolation pay

If you are an NHS bank worker, you will be entitled to full pay when self-isolating in line with the official stay at home guidance (apart from reasons relating to travel).

In England and Scotland, you should receive full pay based on a “look back” approach, using a reference period of work previously worked or on the work you had booked prior to going into self-isolation. Where employers are paying self-isolating bank workers on a “look back” approach, they are encouraged to use the reference period with section 13 of the NHS terms and conditions handbook (annual leave and holiday pay). Check the bank’s policy for more information. 

In Wales, if you need to self-isolate you will be paid for any booked shifts which need to be cancelled.

In Northern Ireland, you should receive full pay whilst self isolating for all pre-booked shifts. In the case of bank staff who regularly work shifts, but do not have any shifts booked at the time, a 13 week "look back" approach may be taken however this will be assessed on a case by case basis. Please see the questions and answers for HSC staff (question 28).

NHS Professionals

NHS Professionals should be following the same approach as NHS banks. For more information, see the NHSP FAQs

Agency workers self-isolation pay 

The RCN is clear that all health and care staff including agency workers should not experience any financial detriment due to COVID-19 related absences. If your isolation is related to travel, please see our travel section.

In the first instance please speak directly to the agency about their policy in this situation. You should also ask what, if any, arrangements will be made to pay agency workers during periods of COVID-19 related self-isolation.  

You may also want to consider joining your local NHS bank or taking a fixed term contract during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure you are entitled to full pay if you need to self-isolate. 

If you are told that you will not receive any pay for a period of self isolation, please see our section on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) below.

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

See our sick pay section below if you are too unwell to work as a result of COVID-19. As from 24 March 2022, you are no longer entitled to SSP from day one of any absence due to COVID-19 and the normal SSP rules now apply. For more information you can see the ACAS website.  

Special payments if unable to work

If you work in England and have been asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace and you are unable to work from home, are on a low income, and will lose pay as a result, you may be eligible for £500 from your local authority under the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme. This scheme ended on 24 February however if you were required to self isolate prior to this date, you can apply for up to 42 days after your first day of isolation. 

For Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, please see the links below:

Support funds for social care workers

Please see:

Northern Ireland: Questions and answers for HSC staff
Scotland: Coronavirus (COVID-19): social care staff support fund guidance
Wales: COVID-19 statutory sick pay enhancement scheme

Shielding is a measure to protect extremely vulnerable people by minimising interaction with others.

The situation around shielding is complex as the governments across the UK are easing or imposing restrictions at a different pace. Find the latest guidance below:

England

Please see the government's guidance on shielding and if you work in the NHS, please see the NHS employers guidance supporting our most vulnerable people

Northern Ireland

Guidance for 'clinically extremely vulnerable' and 'vulnerable' people and updated government statement.

Scotland

Shielding advice and support.

Wales

Shielding extremely vulnerable people.

Shielding and pay

The RCN believes that it is vital that health and care staff do not suffer any detriment or loss of pay for being away from work in order to protect public safety. Therefore, the RCN expects all health and care employers in the UK to ensure that when staff are shielding in accordance with national public health guidelines, they must be paid their normal pay and not suffer any detriment. This includes all health and care staff - regardless of who their employer is, or what type of health or care service they work in.

If you work within the NHS, please refer to the NHS employers guidance supporting our most vulnerable people

Speak to your employer about any concerns you have. If you feel that you are being disadvantaged or you are being placed at risk, please contact us for further advice. 

Shielding and vaccination

Please see our COVID-19 and vaccination advice guide and the sections on refusal and returning to work.

Shielding and your role (protecting others you care for)

If you are a carer and cannot continue in your role whilst also caring for a vulnerable individual who has been instructed to shield, you should discuss this with your line manager. They may be able to redeploy you.

An employee who lives in the same household as someone who is shielding may also be eligible to be furloughed under the government scheme. Speak to your manager and contact us if you need support.

I am due to return to work after a period of time shielding. What should my employer do to keep me safe?

Shielded workers are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and should not return to work until shielding requirements are lifted. Even after these dates, vulnerable staff working in health and care environments may still need to work from home in order to keep them safe.

In advance of any potential return to work, your employer must carry out both an individual and workplace risk assessment to look at your role, your individual risk factors and the environment you may be working in. Please see our guidance on individual risk assessments for more information. 

Your employer should not be calling you into work to do a risk assessment, a discussion should take place over the phone/online. As part of the risk assessment, your employer may want to look at redeployment to areas where the risk of exposure is very low or continue with home working. It is natural to feel anxious when being asked to return to work after a long period off, so the RCN would expect your employer to be empathetic and listen to your concerns, offer support for your mental health and look at issues such as risks from travel to work and a phased return as part of the risk assessment.

If you have a disability, your employer will also need to follow the requirements of the Equality Act and make reasonable adjustments. If you are pregnant and have been shielding, your employer must take this into account when reviewing your pregnancy risk assessment. If the employer cannot put the necessary safety measures in place such as adjustments to the job or working from home, you must be suspended on full pay.

If you are concerned about the results of the risk assessment then please speak to you RCN workplace representative or contact us. You may also want to speak to your GP or consultant.  

All employers must take measures to make workplaces COVID-19 secure including taking all reasonable steps to maintain a two metre social distance in the workplace and having robust cleaning and hygiene measures in place.

The Society of Occupational Medicine has some useful information to support staff when they return to work. Please also see our risk assessment guide along with information from NHS People and NHS Employers.

From 10 December 2021 until 26 January 2022 you were able to self certify for 28 days. This has now reverted to the normal seven days. Please see the UK government guidance on taking sick leave for more information. 

COVID-19 sickness and sick leave entitlement

If you are covered by NHS terms and conditions of service, any COVID-19 sickness would fall under a new full pay temporary entitlement. The length of any COVID-19 sickness absence will not impact on your existing sickness entitlements and you will be paid full pay during any the COVID-19 sickness absence.  

If you do not work for the NHS, check your employer’s policy for more information about sick leave and COVID-19.

Returning to work after COVID-19 sickness absence

Follow any local sickness management procedures and any local and national infection control requirements before returning to work after COVID-19 sickness absence. You should also check the government guidance on recovery and self-isolation.

Fit notes (sick notes) for any COVID-19 sickness absence

The latest process regarding fit notes can be found at NHS 111 online

Sick pay

See our sick pay section within this guide.

Risk assessments

See our guide on individual risk assessments.

The RCN has called on UK governments to ensure that health and care staff do not suffer any financial detriment or loss of pay for being away from work in order to protect public safety.  

NHS staff COVID-19 sick pay

If you are off sick (if you work in Wales, please see the paragraph below for information on sick pay) with COVID-19 you should receive full pay inclusive of all enhancements for any COVID-19 related sickness absence, regardless of your length of service and sick leave entitlement. This means you should be paid what you would have otherwise earned if you were not on sick leave, including any enhancements such as overtime. Your sick pay will be calculated in line with section 14 of the NHS terms and conditions handbook – based on your pay during the previous three months at work including enhancements (known as the reference period).

Your NHS employer may use a different reference period that has been agreed locally. If you’re unsure, speak to your employer to find out what reference period they will be using.

If you are off sick with COVID-19 and you work for an outsourced service or an organisation providing commissioned NHS services, you will also be entitled to full pay on COVID-19 sick leave. You will need to check your employer's policy for any reference period.

In Wales, the NHS Confederation have produced guidance, COVID sickness absence - transition from enhanced provisions to application of regular sickness absence arrangements with effect from 1 April 2022. This contains information on sick pay which depends on the dates of when you were off sick and you can check this at the table at the end of the guidance. It is planned that normal sick pay arrangements will come into place from 1 July 2022.

NHS Injury Allowance

You may also want to consider applying for NHS Injury allowance if you have been on long term sick with COVID-19 and your pay is going to be or has been reduced. Also see the section above on Long Covid for other options you may wish to consider. 

Independent sector COVID-19 sick pay

If you work in the independent sector and you have taken COVID-19 related sick leave and have not been paid your normal pay, please raise the issue with your employer and ask the reason for this in writing. This should be done before contacting the RCN for further advice.

Use this template letter to email or write to your manager asking for full pay for your COVID-19 related absence. If you have your employer’s written response (or if you have written and have not received a response) and you haven’t been able to resolve the issue, you should raise your concerns with your local RCN representative directly or by contacting us

NHS staff bank worker COVID-19 sick pay

If you are an NHS bank worker, you should in the first instance speak directly to your bank about any arrangements for sick pay during the pandemic. The RCN is calling on governments across the UK to ensure that all health and care staff including bank staff receive full pay, as if they are at work, during any COVID-19 related sickness absence.

In Scotland, the government has asked Health Boards to offer bank workers without part-time contracts fixed-term contracts to help manage staffing levels for COVID-19, and to offer them security and stability. This would mean they would be entitled to full pay during any COVID-19 related sickness absence. Find out more here.   
 
NHS bank workers and those on zero hours contracts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland may also want to consider requesting a fixed term contract during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that they to qualify for sick pay and other NHS national terms and conditions. 

Agency worker COVID-19 sick pay

The RCN are clear that all health and care staff, including agency workers, should not experience any financial detriment due to COVID-19 related absences. The RCN has raised concerns with the government that agency workers providing services to the NHS will not have any income protection during periods of sick leave, beyond statutory sick pay (SSP) in most cases. We are also calling on employment agencies to ensure that agency workers do not suffer any financial detriment if they are unable to work shifts because they are self-isolating. 
 
Speak directly to the agency about their policy. You should also ask what, if any arrangements will be made to pay agency workers during periods of self-isolation or sickness absence.  

NHS employers suggest agency workers may also wish to consider joining their local NHS bank during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure they are entitled to full pay for cancelled shifts if they need to self-isolate. 

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

If you do not have a contractual right to sick pay, please see the government guidance on SSP.  From 24 March 2022, SSP will be payable from day four rather than day one, if you are off sick with COVID-19 as normal SSP rules apply. ACAS also provide further information on the changes. You may also wish to look at our advice on sick leave.

RCN guidance on financial wellbeing

The RCN's welfare service has further information that may help on Financial Wellbeing and COVID-19 and your finances.

Support funds for social care workers

Please see:
England: Adult Social Care Infection Control Fund: round 2
Northern Ireland: Questions and answers for HSC staff
Scotland: Coronavirus (COVID-19): social care staff support fund guidance
Wales: COVID-19 statutory sick pay enhancement scheme

If you are employed by the NHS, COVID-19 sickness absence should not trigger any local sickness absence management procedure that results in formal action being taken against you.

Your employer's policy may indicate an assessment of your needs at a certain point but this should be a supportive step rather than one that leads to any formal capability procedure. If you are unsure, check your local policy and contact us for advice. 

If you are not employed by the NHS, you should check your employer's policy.

Contact us if your employer is taking any formal action against you due to COVID-19 related sickness absence. 

Background

Governments from across the UK have issued guidance on the provision of education and childcare during the COVID-19 outbreak, which includes who is identified as key workers for the purposes of on-going educational provision (where relevant).

Time off

If you need to take time away from work to care for your child, your employer should be as supportive and as flexible as possible. You could explore working flexibly or working from home, or you could seek to agree a temporary change to your working hours. It is essential that any changes like this are agreed and evidenced in writing, along with any impact on your pay.  

You should also check your employer’s policy around carer’s leave, so that you’re clear on what you’re entitled to and how you are to be paid if you take this type of leave.

The RCN believes that you should not lose pay as a result of needing to look after your children when school provision is not available. 

England

NHS Employers guidance for staff whose children need to self isolate or are affected by school closures (please see the section on caring commitments)

Scotland 

Coronavirus (COVID-19) guidance: education and children

Northern Ireland

Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice on schools, colleges and universities
Questions and answers for HSC staff

Wales

Education and childcare: coronavirus
Frequently asked questions for managers and staff (please see question 28)

Delay with medical procedure

If you are covered by NHS terms and conditions, your entitlements to sick pay are set out in section 14 of the NHS handbook. If you are not covered by NHS terms and conditions, you should check your contract and/or your employer’s sick pay policy. The RCN believes that you should not experience financial detriment due to the impact of COVID-19 on your scheduled treatment or surgery. We are therefore lobbying for all health and social care employers to be sympathetic to the hardship reduced sick pay may cause to staff, to use their discretion and recognise that the length of absence has been increased through the unique circumstances of COVID-19, and to consider paying full pay as part of a COVID-19 related absence. Where possible, they should also prioritise or fast track staff treatment.

The RCN offers support to all members on long term sick leave and can provide representation at formal meetings. Please contact us if you need further help.

Needing to self-isolate for medical procedures

The RCN believes that you should not experience financial detriment due to the impact of COVID-19 on your scheduled treatment or surgery. 

If you work in the NHS, or for organisations providing commissioned services to the NHS, you should receive full pay, as if you had been at work, for the period of self isolation. This should be recorded as COVID-19 absence in line with local policies. The period of absence for your procedure should be recorded as sickness absence in the usual way. Please also see the following: 

England: NHS employers
Northern Ireland: Questions and answers for HSC staff
Scotland: NHS Scotland 
Wales: NHS Wales employers

If you work for a non NHS employer, you should explore the options with your employer (such as working from home). Otherwise you should be paid your usual contractual entitlements for COVID-19 and sickness absence.

Please also see the sections on homeworking and self isolation-pay.

Please see the UK government guidance on 'travel to England from another country' for more information.  

If rules change when you are already overseas

Government guidance is under constant review and may change at short notice. As a result, you may face quarantine requirements on your return to the UK that weren’t in place previously. 

Speak to your manager as soon as possible to agree the arrangements for your quarantine period, including whether you will be able to work from home, can take leave (paid/unpaid) or use TOIL. 

I am trapped overseas. What should I do?

If you are currently abroad and are struggling to return to the UK, please see further advice on what to do next. You should also contact your employer at the earliest opportunity to discuss the situation and note any quarantining measures that may be required on your return.

Your employer may require you to obtain written confirmation from the relevant airline/ferry/train company that services have been cancelled.

In situations where pre-booked transportation has been cancelled, employers can reasonably expect you to find an alternative form of transport if the cost is not prohibitive (for example asking employees to fly home if ferries have been cancelled). Where you can demonstrate that no reasonably affordable travel options are currently available, we would expect employers to treat the absence as COVID-19 related and continue normal pay until such time as travel becomes possible.

Further information

Please also see our travel health pages.

Government guidance on entering UK.

For information on measures taken by non-UK countries, please visit the UK government website.

If you cannot go to work due to COVID-19 (because you need to self-isolate or for childcare reasons), your employer should work with you to look at different options such as working from home. 

If you are self-isolating, but are otherwise well enough to work, you should agree with your line manager whether working from home is possible. Your line manager should consider the work that can be done remotely, and organisations should consider developing/updating their local homeworking policies.

Unsustainable pressures

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing pressures on staffing and resources in all health and care settings.

This resource has been designed to support members in delivering safe and effective care and with the difficult decisions they make every day.




Peer support

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Help with benefits

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Page last updated - 05/05/2022