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Managing staff absence during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis

Coronavirus (COVID-19) is having an unprecedented effect on working life and in particular, has led to high rates of absenteeism among staff. Read on to find out more about managing staff absence in light of the global health pandemic.


If an employee cannot attend work due to sickness, they are usually required to inform their line manager before they are due to start work (or as soon as possible if this is not practical) and provide medical evidence (eg a sick note from their doctor) for sickness of more than 7 days. 

In light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, employees should not attend work and follow the Government's guidance on self-isolation if they, or anyone they live with develops: 

  • a fever, particularly a high temperature (i.e. a temperature of 37.8 degrees or over), and/or

  • a continuous cough


  • Employees living alone should self-isolate for 7 days from when symptoms, however mild, start.

  • Employees living with others should self-isolate (together with their household) for 14 days from the first appearance of symptoms. The first individual experiencing symptoms can return to their normal routine if their symptoms clear after 7 days and there is specific government advice on what to do if anyone else within the household subsequently displays symptoms. 

  • Employees who aren't experiencing any symptoms should still self-isolate if they have (1) been in contact with a confirmed Coronavirus (COVID-19) carrier; or (2) have recently travelled overseas; or (3) are in a vulnerable group (eg aged 70 or over) have an underlying health condition, or are pregnant.

For more than 7 days' absence, you could ask employees to provide you with an 'isolation note' from NHS 111, which can be obtained by completing a simple questionnaire. A letter from the NHS advising an employee to 'self-shield' because a serious underlying health condition means that they are at high risk is also sufficient evidence.

Make sure employees' contact details are up to date in the event that you need to reach them while they are in self-isolation. 


If eligible, employees would normally receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) where:

  • they have a period of sickness absence from work of at least 4 calendar days in a row, and 

  • 3 'waiting days' (ie days on which they would usually be required to work) have passed

Where absences relate to Coronavirus (COVID-19), SSP is payable from day 1 if an employee has been self-isolating for at least 4 days, however, this only applies if the first day of absence was on or after 13 March 2020.

Alternatively, you may pay employees contractual sick pay as set out in their contracts of employment. 

As a temporary measure during the pandemic, you are expected to pay your employees if:

  • you have asked them to stay away from the workplace and self-isolate

  • they are self-isolating because they have symptoms

  • they are self-isolating in response to medical advice from NHS 111, their doctor or a local health protection team

Changing annual leave plans

During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) situation, employees may change their minds about travelling (or will be unable to travel at all) and may wish to cancel or change annual leave that has already been booked. Many employers allow employees to cancel or change annual leave in limited circumstances (eg where their personal circumstances warrant it and the cancellation or change does not inconvenience the employer's business). However, the circumstances may mean employers allowing employees to change or cancel their leave taking into account the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic - a decision that will ultimately be left to the employees' line managers depending on the circumstances. 

It may well be the case that employees are required to take the leave as booked if you've arranged cover for them, or arranged shift patterns on the basis that they'll be on leave. 

Unused annual leave

Employees are required to take their holiday entitlement during the employer's relevant holiday year and either:

  • lose any unused annual leave not taken by the end of that holiday year, or

  • have any unused annual leave carried over into the following leave year 

The current situation may prevent employees from taking their annual leave during the relevant holiday year, in which case, you could agree to employees taking leave later.

Note that a law was introduced by the government, which allows staff who have not taken all of their holiday entitlement as a result of Coronavirus (COVID-19) to carry it over into the next 2 leave years. This allows up to 4 weeks of unused holiday to be carried over into the next 2 leave years. 

This law applies for any holiday staff does not take because of Coronavirus (COVID-19), for example if:

  • they're self-isolating or too sick to take holiday before the end of their leave year

  • they've had to continue working and could not take paid holiday

Staff may also be able to carry over holiday if they’ve been 'furloughed' and could not reasonably use the holiday in their holiday year.

What about furloughed workers?

Furloughed staff (ie those staff members sent home because there’s no work under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme) can request to take their holiday in the usual way, if their employer agrees. This includes bank holidays.

For any holiday taken, furloughed staff must be paid their wages in full (not the reduced rate under the Scheme).

For more information on furlough, read Furlough, workforce reduction and managing employees.

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