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Changes to self-isolation rules – What do employers in Northern Ireland and Ireland need to know?

  • Ireland
  • Coronavirus
  • Employment law

18-08-2021

Over recent weeks, COVID-19 restrictions have been eased in Northern Ireland and Ireland albeit at different paces. Those with operations on both sides of the Irish border need to have a level of understanding of the different rules in place in relation to self-isolation in both Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Some employers in essential services or employing workers in critical national infrastructure roles across the UK and Ireland have already been participating in government arrangements to provide exemptions from self-isolation rules.

For workers of other employers, the self-isolation rules in Northern Ireland changed on 16 August following similar but not identical changes introduced in other parts of the UK. Employers with a UK-wide presence should refer to the guidance in each of the devolved nations for the full details. A summary of the position in relation to England, Scotland and Wales can be found here. We set out the key points to note in relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland below.

It is, however, important to note that, despite these changes, there will be many circumstances where workers are still required to self-isolate, including where they have tested positive; they are displaying symptoms; or they share a household with someone who has symptoms/tests positive and the worker is not covered by the new exemptions.

They will also need to self-isolate where they are instructed to do so by the Public Health Agency’s Contact Tracing Service (in Northern Ireland) or the Health Service Executive (in Ireland). As before, where the employer of a self-isolating worker is aware of the requirement to self-isolate, it must not knowingly allow the worker to attend the workplace. Non-compliance risks a fine, starting from £1,000 but up to £10,000 for repeat offenders in Northern Ireland or up to €2,500 in Ireland.

Changes to self-isolation rules

In Northern Ireland from 16 August, individuals who are fully vaccinated no longer need to automatically self-isolate if someone they have been in close contact with tests positive for COVID-19.

A close contact is anyone who lives in the same household as someone with symptoms or a positive test or anyone who has had close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 with a PCR test.

However, instead of staying at home and isolating, individuals who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 should get a PCR test on day two and day eight of the 10 day period following last contact with the positive person. If the test is positive, a period of 10 days self-isolation from the date of symptom onset or the test was taken if there were no symptoms, is to be completed. 

Fully vaccinated means that they have been vaccinated with an MHRA approved COVID-19 vaccine in the UK, and at least 14 days have passed since they received the recommended two doses of that vaccine. In other words, under the current regime – 14 days after the second dose of the vaccination has been administered.

There is no exemption from the self-isolation rules for those who are not able to be vaccinated for a clinical reason.

It is also important to remember that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should isolate and book a PCR test.

This does of course bring the question of whether or not employers can or should gather employee vaccination information to understand whether or not they need to self-isolate. An individual’s vaccination status is personal data concerning health (which is special category data under data protection law). An employer’s use of this data must be fair, necessary and relevant for a specific purpose. Employee consent is not sufficient. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advice note, employers must have a compelling reason for recording employee vaccination status and whether such a reason exists will depend on the individual workplace risks. Ordinarily, this will depend on whether it is necessary for the protection of public health or to satisfy the employer’s health and safety obligations.

In Ireland if an individual who is not fully vaccinated is a close contact of a person that tests positive for COVID-19, that individual needs to get tested for COVID-19 and restrict their movement (or stay at home) for 14 days. They can stop restricting their movement if they have a negative test 10 days after the last contact with the person who tested positive and if they do not have any symptoms.

Individuals who are a close contact and who are fully vaccinated do not need to restrict their movements or get a test if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and it is more than:

• 7 days after their second Pfizer-BioNTech dose;

• 14 days after their second Moderna dose;

• 14 days after the Janssen vaccine; or

• 15 days after their second AstraZeneca dose.

It is also important to remember that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms should isolate and book a PCR test. If a person has COVID-19 symptoms and receives a negative test result, they should restrict their movements until the person has not had any symptoms for 48 hours.

Employers should be aware that the Data Protection Commission has published guidance on the processing of COVID-19 vaccination data in the context of employment. The guidance outlines that without clear advice from Irish public health authorities that it is necessary for all employers and managers to establish the vaccination status of employees, the processing of vaccination data is likely to represent unnecessary and excessive data collection for which no clear legal basis exists. There are a limited set of circumstances, such as in the case of frontline healthcare workers, where vaccination can be considered a necessary safety measure. In such circumstances, it is likely that an employer will be able to lawfully process data in relation to the vaccination status of employees on the basis of necessity. 

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This does of course bring the question of whether or not employers can or should gather employee vaccination information to understand whether or not they need to self-isolate.  An individual’s vaccination status is personal data concerning health (which is special category data under data protection law). An employer’s use of this data must be fair, necessary and relevant for a specific purpose. Employee consent is not sufficient. According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) advice note , employers must have a compelling reason for recording employee vaccination status and whether such a reason exists will depend on the individual workplace risks. Ordinarily, this will depend on whether it is necessary for the protection of public health or to satisfy the employer’s health and safety obligations.