Returning to work

This page was last updated on 16 August 2021

England is now in step 4 of the government’s roadmap. This means that most legal restrictions have been lifted.

However, the government advises that:

  • Employers should gradually phase in returns to workplaces where staff have been working from home.
  • If you have Covid-19 symptoms, or have been in close contact with someone who has had a positive test, you should have a daily test.
  • You should continue to isolate if you have a positive test.
  • You should consider wearing a face covering in crowded areas.
  • You should continue to minimise social contacts.

Employers still have a legal duty to keep workplaces safe and to keep their employees safe whilst at work and when travelling to work.

Most our of members have been delivering essential public services throughout the COVID-19 emergency, but some have been unable to work or have had to work from home as their normal workplaces have been closed. Increasingly, we are now moving into a phase of supporting our members who are being asked to go back into their workplaces or to start returning to ‘normal’ work arrangements.

Employers are legally required to do everything reasonable practicable to make the work that you do and the place where you work safe – and they must consult on any proposals with their staff and the trade union appointed safety reps before you return to the workplace.

Who is required to return to work?

All legal restrictions have now ended, and the instruction to work from home if you can no longer applies. The government has sais that employers should return staff to workplaces on a phased approach over time. In any event, employers must consult with their workers and trade unions about how and when they are expected to return to work. Where we have Health & Safety representatives in workplaces they must be involved in the planning of how people can return to work safely.

What about vulnerable people?

The government advice has changed so that even people who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 can be expected to return to their workplace. However, employers must remain mindful of individual circumstances.

Further advice for vulnerable people

What if I have childcare requirements?

Many workers are being asked to return to their workplace, but they don’t have access to their usual childcare arrangements. During the school holidays this could be because out-of-school clubs are closed, or because family members are unavailable.

If you are unable to attend work due to having to look after your children you are entitled, by law, to reasonable unpaid time off. However some employers provide paid time off, so you should check what your contract says about this. In addition, the Prime Minister has said he expects employers to be reasonable and flexible where people have childcare disrupted due to Covid-19. You could also ask your employer to use the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), also know as the furlough scheme.

Find out more about the government’s furlough scheme

If you experience difficulties at work, or are unsure of your rights in this area please contact the branch office using our online contact form.

What about the ‘2-metre’ rule?

Most legal restrictions in England ended from 19 July, including all social distancing rules. The ‘2-metre’ rule and the ‘1-metre plus’ rule are no longer legal requirements in workplaces. However, many employers have continued to encourage staff and customers to maintain social distancing.

What if I don’t feel my workplace is safe?

UNISON believes that our members should never be in a situation where they might endanger themselves and others in the course of doing jobs. Putting you in that situation is potentially a breach of health and safety law and may spread coronavirus to people in high-risk groups.

As a last resort, when faced with a dangerous working environment which cannot reasonably be averted, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps) in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger (section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Although this is very much a right of last resort, the context of a situation will be key on whether refusing to return to work or any other steps are appropriate.  This means that an employee cannot automatically refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.

Before exercising your rights under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, you should speak to your UNISON workplace rep (if you have one) or contact the branch office using our online contact form.

‘COVID-19 Secure’ Workplaces

The government has published guidance for employers on how they can operate ‘Covid-19 Secure’ workplaces. The guidance is divided into various sectors. We expect employers to follow this guidance and to incorporate it into their risk assessments, if you are worried that your employer is not please contact us using our online contact form. Where we have workplace Health & Safety representatives, they must be involved in planning for a ‘Covid-19 Secure’ workplace.

Offices, factories and laboratories


Early years and childcare providers

FE colleges and providers

Working in, or from, vehicles

Shops, branches and close contact services

Events and visitor attractions

Construction and other outdoor work

Grassroots sports facilities such as gyms and leisure centres

Hotels and guest accommodation




Returning to work

  • Can my employer change my shift pattern?

    This will depend on what your employment contract says. Your contract should set out the total number of hours you are expected to work and your normal working hours.

    If your contract includes specific details of the shifts you are expected to work, or the hours you are expected to work then it is unlikely that your employer can change your shift pattern without your agreement or by consulting with you and the union.

    Where your contract does not specify the shift pattern or working hours that you are expected to work then your employer may be able to change your shift pattern.

    However, even in this scenario your employer must provide you with reasonable notice of the change and must take into account any personal considerations that might prevent you from being able to work the new shift pattern. For example if you have dependents that you care for, such as children, or if you have a health condition or disability that may affect what shifts you can work. If your employer imposed a shift pattern on you that meant you could no longer reasonably fulfil your contract then your employer could be acting in breach of the implied term of trust and confidence. In such cases you should contact us for support to raise a grievance.

    In all cases, if your employer wants to change your shift pattern or your working hours you should contact us for advice and support.

  • What are my employer’s responsibilities in respect of reopening my workplace?

    If your workplace can reopen, in accordance with the government’s plan to ease the lockdown restrictions, your employer has certain responsibilities and duties to consider before it can decide to reopen and to ask you to return.

    Our solicitors, Thompsons, have provided the following advice:

    Employers are under a duty to ensure “so far as is reasonably practicable” the health, safety and welfare at work of all their employees. This includes providing a safe system of work and the provision of such information and training and supervision as is necessary to ensure the health and safety at work of employees.

    Employers are required to carry out a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment to identify the risks to the health and safety and take “reasonably practicable” steps to eliminate or reduce that risk.

    Employers must consult employees and union health and safety representatives in good time on health and safety matters including what the risks at work are, the steps taken to manage and control those risks and how information and training will be provided.

    The duties referred to above are set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and various other health and safety legislation. An employer also has a common law duty of care, breach of which will amount to a breach of contract.

    The Government has published ‘Covid-19 Secure’ guidance requiring employers to carry out “suitable and sufficient” risk assessments into the risks to their workers’ from Covid-19 and take “reasonably practicable” steps to eliminate or reduce that risk. These risk assessments must be published on the employer’s website where the employer employs more than 50 people.

    The guidance sets out what employers must do before reopening their workplace(s) to make sure that they are Covid-Secure. The guidance is framed around the following key points:

    • Workers should be allowed to work from home if they can;
    • Employers must carry out a Covid-19 risk assessment, in consultation with workers or trade unions (where trade unions are recognised);
    • Maintain two metres social distancing, wherever possible;
    • Where people cannot be two metres apart, manage transmission risk; and
    • Reinforce cleaning processes.

    The government has published the Covid-Secure workplace guidance in eight parts, each specific to a particular type of workplace.

    Office and contact centres

    Other people’s homes

    Working in, or from, a vehicle

    Working outdoors, and on construction sites

    Shops, branches and similar locations

    Laboratories and research facilities

    Restaurants offering takeaway and delivery

    Factories, Plant and Warehouses

    There is separate guidance for schools and education settings, as well as for public transport operators.

    A breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act is a criminal offence. A failure to ensure the health, safety and welfare of workers in the workplace will amount to a breach of the common law duty of care and may be negligent.