COVID-19: Workers to get time off to volunteer for NHS and social services

To help combat COVID-19, the government plans to allow workers and employees to take Emergency Volunteer Leave to help deliver health and social care services

30 March 2020

As part of the measures proposed under the Coronavirus Bill 2019-2021, the government intends to introduce a temporary right to take statutory emergency volunteering leave for workers and employees, including agency workers, to allow them to take unpaid leave from their jobs in order to volunteer in the health and social care services.

How will it work?

Workers who wish to volunteer for the health or social care services will be able to apply for a certificate allowing them to volunteer for a period of two, three or four consecutive weeks in a volunteering period (see below). Certificates can be issued by an 'appropriate authority' which will include (amongst others) the NHS Commissioning Board, county and district councils and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. More detailed guidance is expected as to the sorts of roles volunteers will be able to fulfil.

Once they have a certificate, workers will be entitled to be absent from work on unpaid leave to act as an emergency volunteer in health or social care. Workers will need to give their employers no less than three working days’ notice of their leave, and provide employers with a copy of their certificate.

The first volunteering period in which leave can be taken will be a period of 16 weeks beginning on the day the provisions come into force, and further volunteering periods may be designated by the Secretary of State. 

Certain workers will not be eligible for the leave (including those who work for a small business of fewer than 10 staff, employees of the Crown and police officers). Other key workers are not specifically excluded currently, but there is power to extend the list of excluded workers.

On the face of it, there seems to be no reason why employees who are ‘furloughed’ under the government’s Job Retention Scheme would be prevented from exercising the entitlement to emergency volunteering leave but the extent to which employees can switch from furlough leave to another type of leave is not yet clear.

What happens to the contract of employment?

Workers/employees will remain bound by their terms and conditions of employment (except terms as to wages and salary) and will be entitled to return to their job after their period of leave.

The leave will be unpaid, but a nationwide scheme will be established to compensate volunteers for loss of earnings and for travelling and subsistence. The Secretary of State will make provision for this in due course. Government guidance indicates that this compensation will be at a capped flat rate, but recognises the need to set this at a level that incentivises volunteers to come forward.

What legal protections will volunteers have?

Workers will have a right not to be subjected to any detriment because they took or sought to take emergency volunteering leave, and dismissal of an employee (including selection for redundancy) because they took or sought to take such leave will be automatically unfair.

Following the Secretary of State’s call for NHS volunteers, on the first day 250,000 people registered their willingness to help and hundreds of thousands have followed since far exceeding expectations. If you have any questions about how these proposals (or any other COVID-19 measures) will affect your business, please contact Luke Bowery or anyone in the Burges Salmon Employment team, who would be happy to advise you. 

Key contact

Luke Bowery

Luke Bowery Partner

  • Employment
  • Restructuring and Redundancy
  • Equality, Diversity and Discrimination

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