Across the UK, schemes are being set up to recruit volunteers to assist the NHS in its fight against COVID-19. The volunteers will be involved with essential services including the delivery of food and medicine, and driving patients to appointments. The Coronavirus Act 2020 received royal assent on 25 March 2020, and one of the key provisions is a new statutory right to take emergency volunteering leave.
What is emergency volunteer leave?
As part of its measures to tackle the spread of Coronavirus and to support the Health Care Service, the UK Government has introduced a new statutory right under the Coronavirus Act 2020 for workers to take emergency volunteering leave. This will allow workers to temporarily leave their job and volunteer for a set period in the NHS or social care sector during the COVID-19 outbreak. This part of the Act will require secondary legislation, and so will come into effect at a later date.
How can a worker take emergency volunteer leave?
To take emergency volunteer leave, a worker will need to be certified by an appropriate authority, such as the Department of Health, an NHS Commissioning Board or a local authority. A certified volunteer will then be entitled to take the leave after providing their employer with the certificate and giving at least three working days’ notice.
Emergency volunteer leave must be taken in a block of two, three or four consecutive weeks, which must be specified in the certificate. Volunteers can take only one block of leave within the 16-week volunteering period, which will begin on the date that the secondary legislation comes into force. The Secretary of State will have the power to set further volunteering periods after the initial 16 weeks if required. This would give volunteers the right to take a further block of leave in the subsequent volunteering period.
Will volunteers be paid?
Employers do not have to pay employees who take emergency volunteer leave. A UK-wide compensation fund will instead be established to compensate volunteers for loss of earnings and any travel or subsistence expenses. We do not yet know how or at what rate this will be paid. Further detail on the compensation fund is expected.
What does this mean for employers?
Employers with more than ten employees will be unable to refuse emergency volunteer leave where an employee has been certified as a volunteer by an appropriate authority.
During volunteer leave, an employee will remain entitled to all of the terms and conditions of their employment that would normally apply (other than remuneration). Employees will have a statutory right to return to their usual job at the end of their leave on no less favourable terms and conditions. It will be unlawful to subject employees to any detriment, and dismissals connected to emergency volunteer leave will be automatically unfair.
Early indications are that uptake of this new scheme will be very high. This means that employers will need to prepare to be able to accommodate potential requests for emergency volunteer leave. Employers should also ensure that suitable processes and policies are in place to make sure that employees do not suffer any future detriment as a result of taking emergency volunteer leave.