Employers should develop and communicate policies that explain how they will handle staff who are required to quarantine after visiting a red or amber list country, especially as countries can move between categories at short notice.
Holidays during the pandemic
From Tuesday 8 June at 4am, Portugal – and its islands Madeira and the Azores – will be added to England’s amber list, meaning that those returning from the country to the UK after this time will need to quarantine for 10 days and pay for two PCR tests.
The decision to move Portugal from green to amber was taken by the UK government after the number of positive Covid-19 tests in Portugal almost doubled. Some 68 cases of the Delta variant, first identified in India, have also been found, including a mutation that first emerged in Nepal.
Under England’s traffic light system for international travel, countries are categorised as either red, amber or green, with each category having different requirements for quarantine and Covid-19 testing. Those arriving from green list countries do not have to isolate at home (as they do with amber list countries) or in a government-approved quarantine facility (red list).
Passengers who have visited or transited through an amber country will be required to fill in a passenger locator form, provide a negative test result prior to travel, quarantine at home for 10 days, and take a test on day two and day eight after arrival. Passengers will also have the option to opt into “test to release” at day five.
The news that Portugal is to move from green to amber is likely to be met with frustration from employees who have booked a trip to, or are currently on holiday in, Portugal, as well as their employers who are faced with staff having to quarantine when they return to the UK.
Andrew Crudge, an employment lawyer at Trethowans Solicitors, said: “The government had already advised that countries may be moved between lists without warning, but employees may not have appreciated how quickly this could happen when booking their holiday.
Employees could be permitted to work from home during a quarantine period. But where they’re unable to do so (or if the employer doesn’t want to permit this) they could be allowed to take it as further holiday or as paid or unpaid leave” – Andrew Crudge, Trethowans Solicitors
“Portugal’s anticipated move to the amber list highlights an obvious issue for employers… This may impact on their return to work, as they would unexpectedly be required to quarantine. If an employer hasn’t planned for this scenario, the employment position…will be unclear.”
Crudge said it was “vitally important” that employers had a plan in place to deal with employees who were unexpectedly forced to quarantine, especially as the busy summer holiday period began. This plan should be communicated to staff, he added, so they knew what was expected of them.
“Employees could be permitted to work from home during a quarantine period. But where they’re unable to do so (or if the employer doesn’t want to permit this) they could be allowed to take it as further holiday or as paid or unpaid leave. Employers may wish to apply a different – perhaps less lenient – approach to staff who knowingly book a trip to an amber list country,” he said.
“In any event, staff should be made aware of the company’s position in advance, which means explaining this to them now, before other countries are moved between lists and the issue escalates.”
Employers should also be wary of the risk of discrimination claims arising because of the way they treat the quarantine period, said Suzanne Staunton, an employment partner at JMW Solicitors.
“When an employee returns, it is important for employers to have an honest and open dialogue with employees concerning the way that quarantine time will be treated, and to take individual circumstances into account which might otherwise result in claims for discrimination if not handled appropriately,” she said.
“It is also important that nothing is said which would encourage the employee to breach their quarantine rules, no matter the impact on the business.”
HR teams might also wish to draw a distinction between the way they treat quarantine time in terms of pay when an employee knowingly goes to an amber or red country, compared to those who go to a green country presuming it will remain green, said Staunton.
Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “The public has always known travel will be different this year and we must continue to take a cautious approach to reopening international travel in a way that protects public health and the vaccine rollout.
“While we are making great progress in the UK with the vaccine rollout, we continue to say that the public should not travel to destinations outside the green list.”
The government has also expanded the red list of countries to include Afghanistan, Bahrain, Costa Rica, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Trinidad and Tobago.
It is urging the public not to travel to amber list destinations, even if they are happy to quarantine and pay for their Covid-19 tests, in order to protect public health.