When lockdown is eased what rights do you have regarding going back to work?

As an employee can you be forced to go back to work?

As we move through this extended period of time dealing with the restrictions and lockdown rules brought on by the Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, we are now heading towards what is hopefully a gradual transition back to our more typical day to day lives. We’ve now started to receive an indication of what might be involved in the movement back towards normality in the working world.

With all of the changes that have happened in our personal and professional lives over the last couple of months, it’s understandable to feel a little apprehensive and perhaps confused about your working circumstances, what you are obliged to do and what your general employment rights are.

Whilst it is heartening in some respects to learn that life is slowly on the way to return to “normal”, the transition can also be extremely worrying, especially if going back to work might be difficult for any reason at the moment.

Some of the main concerns about returning back to work are:

  • You might have children who are still unable to attend school.
  • You could be living with a household member who is in a vulnerable group and is shielding, or you may have an increased risk of health complications from COVID 19 yourself.
  • You might be worried about your own personal safety and health, and unsure of whether your workplace has put sufficient physical and social distancing measures in place.

If your company has not yet discussed or offered options to you based on what your circumstances might be, you may feel that these matters could be tricky to broach with your employers, especially if other colleagues have remained working or are returning to work.

Let’s take a look at some of these main issues in more detail.

What do I do if my children are still at home and I am without childcare?

A recent BBC report states that Boris Johnson has suggested that if schools do not reopen, leaving workers without childcare, then companies should not expect their staff to return. He acknowledged that such an issue should be understood as an “obvious barrier to their ability to get back to work” and that any affected parents and guardians “must be defended and protected on that basis”.

The article goes on to explain that although the statement itself doesn’t necessarily constitute legal protection, the guidance would therefore seem to be that employers can’t force a worker to return to work if there is no provision for childcare available. ACAS provides additional information and guidance on this issue, however; this is a constantly evolving situation which is unlikely to be completely resolved for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

As we head into what would normally be the summer holiday period, which in itself in normal circumstances creates childcare issues, there are calls being made for a much clearer plan to be coordinated, to allow parents, guardians and employers to collaborate on the best solution for all parties involved.

What do I do if I (or a member of my household) are shielding or at an increased risk of serious health complications from COVID 19?

For health reasons related to either yourself or a member of your household, you might feel uncomfortable returning to work just yet.

If you are one of the 1.5 million people who received a government letter instructing them to shield by staying at home for 12 weeks, then your employer should continue to support and facilitate the shielding period.

But what if you are not the person who is shielding, or if you are in a vulnerable group but did not receive a government letter?

An employer is expected to listen to any concerns their staff may have, and take steps to protect everyone. Any solution will be dependent on an individual’s circumstances, but ACAS suggests that flexibility could be offered in a number of ways, including the following:

  • keeping someone on furlough could be considered if they’re temporarily unable to work
  • the company could arrange extra car parking where possible so that people can avoid using public transport
  • employers could consider if someone could work different hours temporarily to avoid peak-time travel

If you’ve approached your employer to discuss potential solutions and you still aren’t comfortable with the outcome, you may be able to arrange to take time off as holiday or unpaid leave (although it’s worth noting that your employer is not obliged to agree to this).

What if I’m concerned that my employer hasn’t made sufficient changes to protect my health in the workplace?

According to ACAS, employers “must make the workplace as safe as possible for staff, customers and anyone else who visits”. To do this, employers must:

  • encourage staff to work from home, wherever possible
  • do a ‘risk assessment’ to identify what might cause harm and take reasonable steps to prevent it
  • follow the government guidelines on working safely during coronavirus on GOV.UK

What should you do if you have concerns?

Speak to your employer as soon as possible with your concerns. A good employer will want to discuss what options are available to you and create a solution that works for you both.

Businesses are encouraged to ask employees for feedback and to make open discussion of the matter easy so that any concerns and worries can be shared amongst colleagues, and resolutions decided together.

Speak to your line manager if you feel that insufficient provisions have been made, or if you have observed that workplace social distancing isn’t being adhered to.

If it continues to be a serious concern, you could report the situation to your local authority or the Health and Safety Executive, who can force an employer to take further action.

Speak to us at Vanilla. We are here to help and will do all we can to offer expert guidance where we can.


We all find ourselves in an unpredictable and dynamic situation at the moment, and at Vanilla we are keeping ourselves as informed as we can and arming ourselves with the latest facts from ACAS and the government COVID advice online. If we can help with any of your questions, whether you are an employer or a candidate, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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