Is it illegal to refuse to return to the office after lockdown in the UK?

After the work from home guidelines have been lifted and you refuse to work, your employer can take disciplinary action or dismiss you but the first step should always be discussion with your employer.

The main issues around the coronavirus pandemic and employment contract law are as follows:

1. Do employees have to follow their employer's restrictions on going into work?

2. What happens if a worker does not follow the company's restrictions on going into work?

3. Can an employee be dismissed for going to work when they should not have done so?

In relation to the first issue, if an employer has taken steps to protect its staff from infection from a possible pandemic, such as by imposing a system of quarantine, it is likely that an employee who does not follow these instructions will be in breach of their contract of employment. 

In most cases, this would mean that they could be dismissed without notice or with immediate effect. 

However, this is a complex area and there are no simple answers. 

There may be a case for a failed request for time off being a breach of contract which could be dealt with under normal disciplinary procedures.

There is also the question of whether employers can require workers to come into work during a pandemic where there is an apparent threat to the safety of their staff and customers. 

In practice most employers have been adopting a common sense approach and allowing staff to take reasonable amounts of special leave in such circumstances.

Government guidelines on vulnerable people remain in place.

These may be people whose health is so fragile that they are at risk of dying if they attend work. 

The decision to be furloughed rests with the employer, but the employer must take into account medical advice when making this decision. The employer can ask for independent medical opinion if he or she feels it necessary.

The contract of employment remains in force while someone is on furlough, including rights to pay and benefits such as sick leave and annual leave. An employer may find it difficult cannot make someone redundant while they are on furlough.

If you have been given a date for your return to work, you have a right to expect a return to the same level of work and responsibilities.

Being in a so-called "vulnerable group" does not mean that you have a legal right not to go back to work.

Those groups include pregnant women, new mothers and people with medical conditions.

However, your employer's duty of care to vulnerable workers is greater than those who are not included in vulnerable groups.

If you are not in a vulnerable group needing to stay at home, then your employer can expect you to return to work if your job cannot be done as well at home.

Your employer can ask you to attend a meeting with a health and safety representative before returning.


Information on redundancy during furlough

Returning to work after Covid

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