I have an employee on an 8 month contract in the UK. Before starting, we agreed for them to take a 2 week holiday to go home to Europe (no problem here). They bought the plane tickets for their family. But now they are asking also for unpaid leave for 2 weeks' compulsory quarantine after returning, which I would struggle with. I'm a bit stuck about how to handle the situation, any suggestions?

They have a holiday allowance, which is theirs to use, and it's fair enough they want to go home for 2 weeks. As is, I will find it hard to manage without them for 2 weeks, but that's on me. If they do go, they will also have to take compulsory quarantine upon return. 4 weeks absence is too much though, especially on an 8 month contract (which, due to the nature of the job, is unlikely to be extended).

So I'd like to say 'yes' to the holiday, 'no' to the extra 2 weeks, but they already bought the plane tickets. Normally I'd say, if I'm asking an employee to cancel a holiday, it's on me to cover the cancellation cost, but I'm not taking away their holidays. Do I have any other options? Ask the employee to find cover for the 4 weeks themselves? The job can only be done in-person, so no remote work arrangements work. It is expensive and problematic to find ad hoc replacement for the employee.


To be clear, the holiday is in the future. It's not that they got back and forced into a surprise quarantine.


I see this question attracted a lot more attention than I anticipated - good I guess. My question is well-read in conjunction with @motosubatsu's answer, which I think is excellent. The fundamental issue is that neither straightforward approach is OK. It is not OK for me to stop the employee from going on their well-earned holiday. It is also not OK for an employee to turn up and announce "We agreed a 2 week holiday, but actually I'll be away for 4 weeks, sayonara". That a compromise is needed is obvious, but it's not even clear what that looks like. Taking a principled stand and looking at it from a single point of view, like "you cannot stop your employee taking a holiday, period", or "just fire them" is missing the point of the question.

Many thanks for all the responses, especially those that do not assume evil intentions on my side.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 11:51

8 Answers 8


This is one of those situations where it's nigh-on impossible for everyone to "win" - as you've said effectively doubling the absence time is a big hit for you and it's not so much about it being paid vs. unpaid but rather about getting the work done. And I don't think it's going to be much comfort to you but you aren't going to be alone in this situation - the way the quarantine rules have beem implemented is very poorly thought out and basically shifts all the mess and pain on to employers and employees to sort out.

First up let's get a few things you can't do out of the way (I appreciate that you haven't mentioned these, this is more for the benefit of others who might be in similar situations):

  1. You can't allow them to take the leave and tell them they can't travel - with rare exceptions you can't really dictate how an employee spends their leisure time.

  2. You can't allow them to take the trip and treat the quarantine period as sick leave - it's weird but unless they are actually showing symptoms SSP won't apply. Which is a nice extra little f-you from the gov't on this one.

  3. You can't instruct them to ignore the quarantine, unless they fall under one of the exemptions they have to do it - it's illegal for them not too.

  4. Lastly, (and this one definitely doesn't apply in your situation) if the employee were already abroad and due to be subject to quarantine upon their return there wouldn't be much you could do about it - the quarantine is legally mandated (other than the defined exceptions) and giving them leave, either unpaid or paid from holiday entitlement would be your only options, you can call it unauthorised leave but you would be on pretty shaky ground actually doing anything to act on that - since asking them to come in to work would be asking them to commit a criminal offence.

Now onto what you can do:

Telling them in advance that you won't authorise any unpaid leave and that there may be disciplinary action, I have to be honest this isn't great - I mean it's pretty much the nuclear option here since you know full well that they will travel and won't be coming in to work when they get back because of the quarantine rules unless it gets lifted in the meantime. While you could take this line and hope they blink first it's a hell of a gamble - since you essentially aren't getting that employee back you're going to have to go through all the hassle of replacing them for the remaining duration of the work. Even if they do blink and cancel the holiday instead I wouldn't be expecting a particularly productive employee. So while you can take this option it seems like everybody gets an unpleasant outcome here, so I don't recommend it.

If the reason for the trip is purely leisure (as opposed to say, providing care for a family member or similar) and it's still more than two weeks away then in the absence of specific contractual or leave policy provisions preventing it you could give notice to cancel the leave (Working Time Regs specify you have to give notice equal to the amount of leave to be cancelled unless there's mutual agreement). Of course that's a real punch in the gut to the employee who is then not getting their holiday and is out of pocket for the air-fare and not likely to be happy about it, if they are willing to take two weeks unpaid I'm going to take a wild stab and say that this trip is important to them. So this going to be less unpleasant that the nuclear option but it's not great.

Doing the above and offering to take the whole cost of the flights yourself is an option - it's pretty much best practice where cancelling leave is going to leave an employee out pocket. That said I can understand why you aren't keen on it. Depending on how large the family is it's not likely to be a completely trivial amount, and as you say in the OP this isn't a run-of-the-mill ask for them to cancel their holiday. Nothing about this whole COVID debacle is run of the mill unfortunately. It also may not be sufficient - see above about them being willing to take unpaid leave, the money isn't purely the motivator here. This is a better option than the above - the employee doesn't get their trip but they at least aren't out of pocket. You get your work done but are out of pocket - probably less than the disruption of losing the employee but still a non-trivial amount.

A potential compromise would be offering to cover the cost of changing the plane tickets to a later date - say having it that they would be taking the last two weeks of the contract off, the quarantine would then not be an issue for you and they still get to do their trip at no out-of-pocket cost albeit at a later date. Neither party gets 100% of what it wants but both parties get something.

Another possibility would be to split the difference in terms of time by having them cut the trip short rather than cancel all together - spend a week in Europe then use the second week of holiday for the first of quarantine and take the second unpaid. Three weeks straight absence isn't great but it's better than four. One week away isn't great but it's better than nothing, so again there's some pain for both parties but neither gets completely hosed either.

Ultimately I think it's about talking to the employee and having a dialog about coming to a compromise that works for both, personally I'd be starting with one of the last two suggestions above, they feel a bit more constructive to me and like with a bit of finessing you might be able to come away with both parties at least moderately satisfied.

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    I would have thought that if they spend their leisure time in a way that has an impact on their work time (as it will in this case), then you do have some say over it. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 18:05
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    @GS-ApologisetoMonica but where do you draw the line? For example if the employee books time off to go skiing (or whatever) with a non-trivial risk of breaking their leg and having to take sick time as a result..... would you say that they can't go skiing because of the leg-breaking-risk then? Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 20:00
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    @seventyeightist I would guess that ultimately what is reasonable would be up to an employment tribunal. This story for example suggests that professional footballers are contractually banned from skiing during the season. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 20:22
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    Another option for the OP is to check whether the employee had travel insurance. With the government advising people not to travel except in emergencies, cancelling the flights should be covered by their insurance. And regarding "with rare exceptions you can't really dictate how an employee spends their leisure time", as an employer you absolutely can rescind permission for a holiday. It's not good practise for maintaining employee relations, but the point of hiring a contractor short-term is specifically because you don't have to give them the same consideration as a permie.
    – Graham
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 11:22
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    @o0'. Firstly that wasn't actually what I wrote - my suggestion was 1 week travel, 1 week paid for quarantine and the second week of quarantine unpaid. Secondly how far away do you think Europe is from the UK?! "Barely enough to travel" - rubbish. You can get to most of Europe in 2-3 hours and in more normal circumstances it's very common for UK folks to travel to Europe for a weekend.
    – motosubatsu
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 8:25

Normally I'd say, if I'm asking an employee to cancel a holiday, it's on me to cover the cancellation cost, but I'm not taking away their holidays.

Employee purchased the tickets based on a previous agreement with you, one you want to go back on now. If you do that then you at the very least owe them money for the plane tickets as you are the person breaking the previous agreement. I won't go into legalities of that as this shouldn't need to go there if both parties are civil and sensible about it.

The job can only be done in-person, so no remote work arrangements work. It is expensive and problematic to find ad hoc replacement for the employee.

As his boss/manager/whatever it is on you, not the employee, to make sure that you have enough resources to complete the job, what would you do if this employee gets sick during his holiday, or breaks a leg, and cannot return to work for a month, or two? Trying to unload your problem on an employee is not right, you need to be prepared to work together towards a compromise. And so far you are not even willing to cover his lost airfare.

Do I have any other options?

Talk to him. Explain that those are problematic times (global pandemic qualifies) and him effectively going away for four weeks is going to be problematic for you, so you would like him to postpone the vacation until the situation improves. At the very least you should offer to cover any costs he incurred so far and offer flexibility in rescheduling the vacation in the near future when situation may actually allow for this two weeks trip, without being stuck for a month.

Keep it civil, don't burden the employee with your issue of not having enough workforce to cover his duties and you should be able to figure out a solution that works best for everyone.

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    I don't want to restrict their off-work time. I want them to work when they are ordinarily required to. They have a right to a holiday, yes, but I have a right to expect them to work outside of holidays and emergencies. This is not an emergency. There is clearly a conflict, and it's not clear to me how to resolve it, but it's not as simple as I'm the baddie.
    – Bennet
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 9:40
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    @Bennet I am not calling you a baddie, and I don't appreciate suggesting that. What I do is point out your limitations and duties as an employer. And lets say you go to the employee and cancel their holiday, so out of spite they go out and get exposed to coronavirus? Now you are stuck without the employee for at least two weeks, and you have no recourse against this action. Which is why it's best to talk and compromise, which includes offering to offset their financial losses since it's clearly cheaper for you than finding ad-hoc replacement.
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 9:43
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    Was the holiday booked before the government quarantine was announced? I think this is relevant here. Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 12:49
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    @Bennet I don't think you've considered all the implications of your combined actions. Let's say they go on vacation, travel internationally, and compelled by your demands under the threat of losing their job, arrive at work on time. Now you have coerced them to break a law. If you let them in, you are liable for knowingly putting your entire work force at risk. If you bar them from entry, you fire them for non-attendance after barring them from entry. There's no upside for you to having your cake and eating it too, if they have half-a-brain. Compromise is the way forward.
    – Edwin Buck
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 15:49
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    @TymoteuszPaul "Employee purchased the tickets based on a previous agreement with you, one you want to go back on now." This is incorrect, based on the current question. The agreement described was for two weeks leave. The employee booked a two week holiday on the assumption that two weeks leave would cover it. The rules have since changed so the employee would now require four weeks rather than the agreed two. The OP has not expressed any particular interest in what happens during the agreed two weeks, just that it is not extended.
    – thelem
    Commented Jun 11, 2020 at 19:54

Wait and see

If the proposed departure date is imminent (say within the next 3 or 4 weeks) then Joe Stevens has already pointed out the FCO advice.

If the proposed departure date is further in the future, then wait and see what the situation is at the time. 14 days quarantine is a significant barrier to travel and is unpopular particularly in the travel industry. There is pressure to find an alternative solution and if the rules change you may find there is no problem.

Alternatively, the decision may be taken out of both of your hands. His airline may cancel his flights (e.g. today Tui have cancelled beach holidays before 11th July) or the infection rate may increase leading to a tighter lockdown.

Many airlines are being more flexible with amending tickets than normal. If he is able to move his tickets to a later date that may improve his chance of avoiding quarantine.

  • Thisis actually very correct. Depending on WHERE the travel goes to, the quarantine requirements may fall fast. I was not going to germany from my residence due to 14 day mandatory quarantine the last weeks. Happens this ends TOMORROW - so a holiday in a month or two is possibly facing VERY different circumstances.
    – TomTom
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 10:59
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    That is a good point too, thanks. No immediate rush.
    – Bennet
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 19:52

The FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) are still advising against all but essential international travel.

If they booked a package holiday, or had travel insurance in advance, they should in any case be covered for their costs from being unable to travel.

The quarantine I see as irrelevant here. They do not have your agreement for four weeks holiday, and they have no automatic right to expect it. Therefore, if they want to keep their job, they cannot travel (and in any case, should not travel). Hopefully, they can get their money back...

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 11:55
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    I initially accepted this answer, but changed the main answer to motosubatsu's below, as it is more complete. Still, many thanks!
    – Bennet
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 19:50

Your problem is that this extra two weeks is something the UK government has mandated, not a choice of the employee

The UK government has put in a requirement for two weeks of quarantine for anyone coming into the UK. Disciplining your employee for following this requirement will get you into legal/PR hot water. Worst-case scenario, you may have no choice but to suck it up and allocate additional personnel. Your best bet is to wait and see what the airlines and government of the foreign country do leading up to the vacation dates.

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    The government ALSO says not to travel unless necessary, so this is a case of the employee going AGAINST government recommendations and THUS having the quarantine.
    – TomTom
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 10:59
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    We don't know if it's necessary or not - OP's employee is going to see family, and we have no idea what their motivations for continuing to travel in this climate are. Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 11:13
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    "See the family" is not necessary. If there is a specific reason, it is easy to give it to justify - but you REALLY will have a hard time to come up with a necessity and not a "oh, my feelings are hurt" necessary. Particularly because it is a time in the future - so it is not like someone died.
    – TomTom
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 11:36
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    The thing is, the government has ADVISED one thing, and that isn't being enforced in any way. However it's REQUIRED for people coming into the UK to quarantine. Travel advisories have a different level of weight compared to laws. 'The government has advised not to' does not have the same legally protective effect as 'the government has made this illegal' Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 11:50
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    @TomTom: The content of the already agreed upon two weeks is the employee's personal discretion. I'm hardpressed to agree that employers get to second guess already made agreements based on what they consider "worth it". The travel could be essential, and it's not really the employer's place to either judge that nor demand evidence.
    – Flater
    Commented Jun 12, 2020 at 16:44

I'm going to approach this from a slightly different angle - I think this boils down to the following question:

Is refusing 2 week's unpaid leave worth a potentially disgruntled employee for 8 months?

The answer could be "yes", in all fairness - I know nothing about the role. But if there may be times when you want this employee to put in some extra hours, go the extra mile, lend a helping hand to others (or is just someone you need to keep motivated) - it's a question worth considering. They may, understandably, be rather unwilling to be flexible and alter personal arrangements in those scenarios if you've demonstrated upfront that their employer won't be flexible in return.

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    It's also worth considering that the employee could be disgruntled enough to just quit, leaving you in a rather worse situation than having to deal with an extra two weeks of unpaid leave before they get back to work. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 7:45

This isn't your problem.

Your sense of diplomacy is noble, but you're shouldering too much of the consequence for something that really should not be on you at all to resolve. You are taking on the responsibility of acting as a travel agent for--of all things--a contract employee.

You agreed to two weeks' vacation, which the employee made accommodations for in advance. As you point out, you're not asking them to cancel their holiday, only to adhere to the contractually-agreed terms which they are now trying to change due to circumstance. You likely would not have hired them if you knew in advance they would need more time off than they disclosed at the time of signing.

There is nothing special about COVID-19 that should make this your problem. Circumstances beyond anybody's control change vacation plans all the time. 100% of the time in those cases, it's not the employer's obligation to reimburse or reschedule vacation expenses because global warming melted the slopes, insurgencies interrupted border crossings, a hurricane flooded the links or norovirus outbreak berthed all the cruise lines. It simply becomes a "my vacation in 20XX was ruined because of..." story for the employee, they are out some money, and life goes on.

  • It's an 8-month contract, not an 8-year military service commitment with mandatory deployment and inactive reservation options. There are those of us who continue to endure not seeing our own children or families for 4-6 months or more already out of precautious necessity and have no clear expectation of when it will be safe to do so again.
  • You have a business to run in a faltering economy with record unemployment. You are at real risk of loss due to nonperformance, but you're bending over backwards trying to accommodate the international travel plans of a temporary employee during a global pandemic. Man up, put your boss pants back on and tell them they need to act like an adult and redefine the terms of their own extracontractual affairs, not your employment agreement.
  • Failing that they need to fulfill their obligations to you and arrange to conduct this sort of travel when they are no longer beholden to the terms of the outstanding contracts they've signed.

There is no optimal solution here that doesn't result in you simply getting taken advantage of by someone with no real commitment to the success of your business. Everybody is suffering, sacrificing or missing out on something right now. What makes this employee so special?

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    "There is nothing special about COVID19" well, no? In those covid-19 times, ths regulations for travel and work change so fast and are completely different then before. At least in Europe, such an event is completely unprecedented. Employers and employees do have to work solutions out with each other.
    – guest
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 17:47
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    What this answer also doesn't take into account is that saying"f*uck you, this is not my problem" to the employee will make a very unmotivated employee in the future. Even managers cannot do everything they are entitled to legally, they need diplomacy.
    – guest
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 17:52

Can they work from home during the quarantine? Then they don't have to take an extra two weeks of leave.


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