From 17 May 2021, holidays abroad could take place again in a limited number of locations following further easing of COVID-19 restrictions. The government’s green list contained very few classic holiday destinations, only exacerbated with Portugal’s recent removal. With the growing demand to get away, some employees may be tempted to book a holiday to an amber list country which requires pre-departure testing and quarantining on return to the UK.

Where does this leave employers and how can they manage staff that book a holiday to a country classed as an amber location which requires quarantining? Our employment partner Michelle Last considers the options for employers in this article.

Travel plans to amber list destinations

At present, the government has extended its guidance on working from home until 19 July. Whilst this is in place, for those who can work from home, quarantining after a holiday may not be an issue, but as the year progresses, working-from-home guidance may gradually be scrapped.

When government guidance changes, employers may be within their power to institute employees returning to the workplace. If there is a requirement to return to work, this invariably means that it is much more difficult for employees to book a holiday to a destination that requires that they quarantine on return to the UK.

Employees thinking of going on holiday to an amber list country and simply working from home on return may therefore need permission before booking such a holiday.

Many businesses can limit the amount of holiday that can be taken at any one time, with this typically capped at two weeks. As such, employers may stop employees’ holiday plans which involve being unable to return to the office for an additional period after returning from abroad. Employers can simply do so by requiring that employees return to work and not allow extended leave to cover the time in quarantine.

Managing new strains in the workplace

Many organisations will simply not want to run the risk of employees bringing home new strains of COVID-19 and jeopardising employees’ health or further infecting the workforce. As such, it is certainly possible, and even likely, that some employers will attempt to ban staff from travelling to amber or red list countries.

If businesses can legitimately require employees to wear a face mask or be vaccinated in certain circumstances, as recent employment tribunal decisions have shown, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that they may be able to veto certain holiday destinations too. There is currently no case law to give guidance on this point, but each employer may wish to consider the facts of each situation and whatever restrictions are in place at the time. There are a number of factors such as size of business, resources and impact of staff absences, and whether or not the employees really can’t work from home, which may influence the decision and response.

Many employers are keen to start reopening the workplace and reuniting teams as soon as possible. Foreign travel represents risking that, particularly in government-deemed higher-risk destinations.

Open communication with employees

As the situation continues to evolve and restrictions change, employers should consider how they plan to deal with requests for extended periods of holidays or if staff are unexpectedly needed to quarantine should their holiday destination change to the amber or red list without warning, and communicate this with staff as soon as possible. Communicating this early, and clearly outlining the company’s position in advance, may help minimise future misunderstandings.

The current guidance from the government states that we should avoid amber list countries and exercise caution. In light of this guidance, employers may well wish to announce to employees that they should not travel to amber list countries for holidays and that they must seek permission from management to do so.

This means that employees who fail to comply with a reasonable management instruction may be subjected to disciplinary action. It could also potentially be a breach of the relationship of trust and confidence between the parties.

However, employers should exercise caution: today’s red list may be tomorrow’s go-to green destination.