Furlough can be used to support self-isolating staff, reports say

Treasury maintains job retention scheme was ‘not intended’ for self-isolating workers, but experts say employers could have claimed through the scheme

Firms are allowed to furlough staff who are self-isolating because of coronavirus, it has been reported – a revelation that experts have said will be “news to most employers”.

According to reports from Politico magazine, emails between senior civil servants have shown that employers have always been allowed to use the furlough scheme to support workers who were self-isolating.

The reports claimed the Treasury was reluctant to publicise the fact because of concerns it would lead to employees being unnecessarily furloughed.

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In a statement to People Management, a Treasury spokesperson said: “It has always been clear that the purpose of the furlough scheme is to support jobs – we’ve been upfront about that from the start.”

The spokesperson went on to say the guidance sets out that the scheme is “not intended for short-term absences from work due to sickness or self-isolation”, but that “if an employer wants to furlough an employee for business reasons and they are currently off sick then they are eligible to do so, as with other employees.

“This has been set out in guidance since April last year,” the spokesperson said.

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However, David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law, said neither Treasury directions nor guidance were specific on this point.

“Employers and practitioners had taken the guidance that statutory sick pay was available for self-isolating employees as meaning furlough pay wasn’t available – particularly as specific changes were made to statutory sick pay to allow for 14 days of self-isolation,” he said.

Government guidance on furlough says “self-isolation should not be a consideration” when deciding to furlough an employee, but that self-isolating employees “may be able to get statutory sick pay”.

However, Jepps said the suggestion now is that employers could have claimed furlough pay, said Jepps.

“This would have been a lot better for employees as the current weekly rate of statutory sick pay is £96.35. Most of that figure is funded by the employer, unlike furlough,” he said.

Separate guidance from the government on self-isolating advises workers unable to work from home that they “may want to speak to your employer about whether you are eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough)”.

The government also introduced a specific package providing one-off payments of £500 to people on low incomes asked to self-isolate.

Michael Hopkins, professor of innovation management at the University of Sussex, said the availability of furlough for self-isolating workers would come as “news to most employers”.

Hopkins, who is leading a research project comparing the test and trace systems of different countries, added the suggestion that furlough could have been used to “make self-isolation affordable was not something we saw reported or discussed during all these months”.

“Many scientists, including senior government advisors, have long been calling for better support for self-isolation to break chains of infection,” he said, criticising the government for being “ideologically opposed to spending money to boost self-isolation” despite spending millions on testing.

Sarah Reed, senior policy and research fellow at the Nuffield Trust, said: “With self-isolation compliance at low levels, it is crucial that workers can access sufficient financial support to stay at home when they test positive. 

“That it appears the government didn’t make isolation support easy to access when they had the chance to is very disheartening.”