How should employers respond if employees are affected by school closures to prevent the spread of coronavirus?

There is limited statutory provision for time off for employees who have to look after their children when schools, nurseries and other childcare providers are closed.

The statutory right to time off for dependants provides for a period of unpaid leave to take action necessary because of the unexpected disruption or termination of arrangements for the care of a dependant. This would cover time off to arrange alternative childcare in the event of a school closure, but it does not cover extended time off for employees to look after their children themselves. Some employers may have a policy on time off to care for dependants that is more generous than the statutory minimum.

Employers should keep in mind that advice on self-isolation and social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak is likely to make it more difficult for employees to make alternative arrangements for the care of their children. Employees may have no option but to stay at home themselves.

Current government guidance is that employers should encourage all employees to work from home, wherever possible. If an employer has a policy that employees should not be responsible for looking after their children at the same time as working from home, it may need to relax this policy.

Where working from home is not possible, employers will need to consider alternative arrangements, such as agreeing to a period of paid or unpaid leave. Employees with at least one year's service are entitled to up to 18 weeks' unpaid ordinary parental leave for each child under the age of 18.

An employer could allow employees to take annual leave in this situation, as an alternative to unpaid leave, although employees may not have sufficient holiday entitlement to cover the absence or may be unwilling to use their holiday for this reason. Employers can require employees to take annual leave by giving them the required notice.

Children of employees in sectors that are critical to the response to the coronavirus outbreak will still be able to attend school. The government guidance on maintaining educational provision includes a list of the sectors covered.