Can parents attend work if their child is sent home?

Jane Hallas unravels the conflicting messages on self-isolation requirements if a child is not allowed to go to school because of a Covid-19 outbreak

At the moment, a lack of clarity from the government has made it confusing for HR professionals to advise employees who are parents as to what they should do if their child is told to stay at home because of Covid-19 concerns at their school.

In several cases, advice provided by schools has contradicted the latest guidance offered by the government. Compounding this, and despite the likelihood of the scenario, there is currently no specific guidance available on what to do if a child has been in contact with a Covid-positive individual at school.

This has led to much uncertainty as to whether employees should be told to stay at home or whether they should still continue to work and, if so, what pay they are entitled to, if any.

What does published guidance tell us?

The official NHS Test and Trace guidelines say individuals who have had recent contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus will be required to self-isolate for 14 days. It goes on to say that “if you live with other people, they do not need to self-isolate”. However, it also states that they “should avoid contact with you as far as possible and follow advice on hygiene”. This is despite the fact that, in this case, parents will be unlikely to avoid contact with young children.

Government guidance is clearer on what must happen if a child shows symptoms of Covid-19 at school. Emergency guidelines published by the Department for Education state that if anyone in a school becomes symptomatic (continuous cough, high temperature, changes to taste or smell), they must be sent home immediately, self-isolate for at least 10 days and seek a Covid-19 test.

The Test and Trace guidelines note that, in this scenario, all members of the same household must self-isolate for a period of 14 days. This is also confirmed in the government’s self-isolation guidance

What if an employee needs to look after their child and/or must self-isolate?

Where possible, employees should work from home. But if parents cannot work from home, the situation can be more complicated. 

Sharing a household with a child who doesn’t have symptoms, who has come into contact with a Covid-positive individual at school and has been told to self-isolate in accordance with Test and Trace provisions, is not included in the scenarios where an employee is entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP). Alternatives would have to be considered, such as taking unpaid leave. 

In the eyes of the government, this may be classified as “time off for family and dependants”, a scenario for which there are already published guidelines. The guidance states that there is “no set amount of time” that this can apply for; however, it is likely that, in this case, it would apply for the entire period given that it would be extremely difficult to put in place alternative care provision in the circumstances. 

It goes on to note that the employer “may pay you for time off to look after dependants, but they don’t have to”. This will therefore depend on your own policies and procedures. 

Employer choice

However, there is another scenario that could entitle an employee to full pay. If the individual wishes to attend their workplace and is ready and willing to work but the employer forbids them from doing so on a precautionary basis, this could be categorised as a suspension from work on health and safety grounds. Generally, this would be on full pay, although there may be contractual provisions that allow the individual to be suspended without pay. Again, published guidelines clarify this scenario.

Most importantly, if anyone in the employee’s household develops coronavirus symptoms, the complexion of the scenario changes entirely. Here, under the recently amended regulations, the employee is entitled to SSP for every day of absence (as opposed to from the fourth day of absence).

The rules around self-isolation are changing constantly, so ensure you check the latest guidance. The above also only applies to England and the position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may be different.

Jane Hallas is head of team and a solicitor at Ellis Whittam