Returning to work

This page was last updated on 16 June 2021 at 13.55

England is now in step 3 of the government’s roadmap. This means:

  • You should continue to work from home if you can.
  • You must wear a face covering in many indoor settings, such as shops and places of worship, and on public transport, unless you are exempt or have a reasonable excuse.
  • You can meet indoors with up to six people from any number of households, or any number of people from no more than two households.

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.

However, regardless of COVID-19, employers are legally required to do everything reasonable practicable to make the work that you do and the place where you work safe – and should 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?

With the exception of some businesses and services that are still required to remain closed by law, employers are now allowed to ask their workers to return but only where they can maintain a ‘COVID-19 Secure’ workplace. However, anyone who can do their job from home should still be allowed to do so. 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 working from home?

Government advice remains that one way of being able to work safely is to be allowed to work from home. Employers should support their workers who can work from home, to be able to work from home.

What about vulnerable people?

The government advice has changed so that even people who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 are expected to return to work if they cannot work from home, if their workplace is ‘COVID-19 Secure’, and if they can maintain social distancing at work.

Further advice for vulnerable people

What if I have childcare requirements?

Many workers are being asked to return to work, 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. Once schools return in September there will be many before-, and after-school clubs that won’t be reopening.

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.

Keeping your distance at work

Government advice is that people should either stay 2 metres apart or ‘1 metre plus’ – which is one metre plus mitigations that will help to prevent transmission. These mitigations will depend on the workplace or setting. For example, on public transport, in shops and supermarkets, people must wear a face covering as it is not always possible to stay 2m apart. People should also wash or sanitise their hands regularly and avoid the busiest routes and times (like the rush hour).

In other workplaces, mitigations could include installing screens, making sure people face away from each other, providing hand washing facilities, minimising the amount of time you spend with people outside your household or bubble, and being outdoors.

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 now published its 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.

The government has set our five steps that all employers should follow before opening their workplaces.

Five steps to a COVID-19 Secure workplace

1. Carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment

2.  Develop cleaning, hand-washing and hygiene procedures

3.  Help people to work from home

4. Maintain 2 metre distance where possible

5. Where people cannot be 2 metres apart, manage the transmission risk

Specific and detailed advice has been provided on a sector-by-sector basis. Links to those relevant to our members can be found below.

Working in offices and contact centres, updated 31 July 2020

Working in other people’s homes, updated 31 July 2020

Working in, or from, vehicles, updated 31 July 2020

Working in shops, branches and similar locations

Working outdoors, and on construction sites

Working in labs and research facilities, updated 31 July 2020

Specific guidance for library workers

Specific guidance for leisure centre workers



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.

  • Do employers have to follow the 2 metre rule in the workplace?

    Yes. Although there may be some situations where it is not possible to maintain the 2 metre rule, such as in care settings and some situations in schools.

    The Covid-Secure guidance from the government requires employers to take steps to ensure they can maintain the 2 metre rule. Adjustments could include changes to shift start and end times to reduce congestion, one-way systems in the workplace, moving furniture, using additional exits and entrances, etc.

    Our solicitors, Thompsons, have provided the following advice:

    Where the two-metre social distancing rule cannot be followed in full, in relation to a particular activity, your employer should first consider whether that activity needs to continue for the business to operate. If it does, the employer should then take all the mitigating actions possible to reduce the risk of transmission between staff. The suggested mitigating actions include:

    • Increasing the frequency of hand washing and surface cleaning
    • Keeping the activity time involved as short as possible
    • Using screens or barriers to separate people from each other
    • Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face) whenever possible
    • Reducing the number of people each person has contact with by using ‘fixed teams or partnering’ (so each person works with only a few others)
    • If people must work face-to-face for a sustained period with more than a small group of fixed partners, the employer will need to assess whether the activity can safely go ahead.

    Employers have a legal duty to consult with workers and trade unions (where trade unions are recognised) about matters that affect the health, safety and welfare of their workers.

    The government, including the Prime Minister in his announcements and public statements, has said that nobody should be expected to work in an unsafe environment.

  • 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.