COVID-19: Latest guidance for employers on overseas travel

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Green lists, red lists and cries of ‘what’s the point of an amber list anyway’? This week has seen a continuation in the ongoing saga of overseas travel.

Not only does this continue to cause a great deal of uncertainty for the travel and hospitality industries but it also causes a few HR headaches for employers when it comes to managing annual leave.

In this article we look at some of the common issues and frequently asked questions from employers as we head towards the summer holiday season.

Employees needing to self-isolate on their return from holiday.

Employers cannot insist that employees return to work prior to any period of self-isolation.

If the employee wishes to go away for two weeks but they know they will be required to self-isolate on their return, then they should be booking leave to cover this.

Usually, employers have rules around how long an employee can book leave, for example employees may require special permission for any leave requests exceeding two weeks.

Whilst any leave request is up to the employer to approve, it is important to be reasonable. Your employee may be travelling to a country on the amber list because they have a family emergency or wish to attend a funeral. Whatever the circumstances if you can accommodate the leave then do so.

If, however, you genuinely cannot authorise the leave, or perhaps the employee does not have sufficient leave to cover their period of isolation, you can turn the request down.

Employees travelling to a destination on the ‘amber’ list and not booking sufficient leave to accommodate their self-isolation period.

As above, the employer has the ultimate say in whether they approve a request for annual leave or not.

Employees cannot insist that they be granted leave at a specific time if the needs of the business genuinely cannot sustain it.

The conundrum employers have here is that employees do not have to declare to their employer the reason they are requesting annual leave. However, if they knew prior to travelling that they needed to self-isolate and did not take the necessary steps to agree the time off, then they may face formal disciplinary action on their return.

Where travel restrictions change whilst the employee is away, this is outside their control. They should contact you at the earliest opportunity and if you are able to extend their annual leave you can. Other than that, a period of unpaid leave will need to be agreed.

What about statutory sick pay?

Statutory sick pay (SSP) is not payable if someone is simply self-isolating in accordance with the travel rules on their return to the UK. SSP will be payable though if they, or someone they are travelling with, or have been in contact with, has COVID-19 or COVID-19 symptoms.

Can I ask someone where they are planning to travel whilst on their annual leave?

Under the circumstances it would be appropriate for you to ask.

Alternatively, you could add a note to holiday booking forms or issue a companywide communication to advise staff that they should seek appropriate travel advice if they are traveling outside the UK.

You could add that if travel restrictions and/or self-isolation rules are in place, they travel at their own risk and the company will not necessarily agree to extend a period of paid leave for self-isolation reasons.

What if an employee fails to self-isolate on their return to the UK and instead comes back to work?

This is potentially a very serious situation because their actions could place their colleagues and/or your customers at risk.

Seek advice from us immediately before taking any formal action. You should also contact our Health & Safety experts immediately, if you are not signed up to this part of our service then now is the time to contact us to discuss this.

Requests to cancel annual leave due to changes in travel restrictions

3rd June 2021 saw Portugal removed from the green travel list* and the situation regarding safe travel is changing all the time.

As a result, we are likely to see a lot of employees cancelling their annual leave due to not being able to travel.

Employers need to act reasonably here but at the same time it is understandable that you don’t want employees to store up lots of annual leave, only to have them make a mad rush to book leave when (eventually) travel restrictions are fully lifted.

Make sure you remind staff throughout the year to book their leave, make clear that leave request will be considered on a first come first served basis and you cannot guarantee that all requests will be accommodated.

It is also worth bearing in mind the Working Time (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020. Where it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ for an employee to take some, or all, of their annual leave due to the pandemic, they can carry over up to 4 weeks leave into the next 2 leave years.

It is important however, that employees are not unreasonably refused their right to book and take annual leave and any arrangements for the carry-over of leave must be discussed and properly communicated with staff.

The devolved nations usually adopt the same approach as England regarding overseas travel and at the time of writing Scotland and Northern Ireland have already mirrored England’s travel restrictions.  

If in doubt- always seek our advice.