Managing parents when children need to self-isolate

Schools have reopened across the UK as part of the attempt to kickstart the nation back to some form of normality. Since pupils of all ages and year groups have been allowed to return to school, parents have also been able to gradually return to work. However, the next puzzle piece in the coronavirus jigsaw relates to rights for parents whose children must stay at home because their school has sent them home to self-isolate. This is usually after someone in their year group has tested positive for the virus so the ‘bubble’ must quarantine for 14 days.

The Government has made clear that a parent will not be classed as ‘self-isolating’ even if their child has been asked to do so – unless their child exhibits symptoms or tests positive for the coronavirus; they themselves are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive; they have returned from a non-quarantine exempt country abroad, or they have been told by the NHS to self-isolate.

If the parents falls into a category for self-isolation and cannot work from home, they will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) from day one of isolation provided they meet all of the other SSP qualifying criteria. The only SSP exception is where it is necessary as a result of travel to a non-quarantine exempt country.

Where a parent is not self-isolating, they may need some time off to deal with the sudden need for the child to remain at home. For this purpose, they are legally entitled to unpaid time off for dependants. This right to time off is intended to be for unforeseen emergencies only and can cover the breakdown of normal childcare arrangements i.e. the child is sent home from school. Currently, there is no qualifying service period required to entitle an employee to take time off work of this nature so employees have the right to take it from day one of employment.

If parents are to take time off for dependants they should be aware that, aside from the fact that it is unpaid, they are required to inform their employer as soon as reasonably practicable about the absence, the reason for it and the anticipated length, which employers should not reasonably refuse. Normally, one or two days is granted as time off for dependants because the right to time off only extends to that which is necessary to make new arrangements; it does not extend to time needed to look after the child for what may be a prolonged period.

In this case, employers may find it beneficial to open up communication with employees about how the extended period of time off will be dealt with. A period of homeworking may provide a resolution. If this is not possible, employers may agree with the employee that a short notice annual leave request can be accepted. Alternatively, the employee may have some time off in lieu that can be used, or it may be possible to agree a temporary change to the employee’s working hours to be temporarily changed - to evenings and weekends, for example – when their partner will be home to look after the child. A period of unpaid leave may also be discussed.

The new extra lockdown measures may themselves provide the answer, as more employees are likely to be placed into a further period of homeworking.

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