Expert advice

Does my employer have the right to cancel annual leave I have already booked?

Lawyer explains how your rights to time off are affected by COVID-19 pandemic

Nurses are reporting difficulties in being able to take much-needed time off find out what the rules are and what your employer is entitled to ask of you

In recent weeks, several nurses and other key workers have taken to social media to report problems taking their annual leave entitlement.

Some say their employers are cancelling booked leave as a result of COVID pressures, while others are having their annual leave postponed until later in the year. Some report having to work through their annual leave, and wont get it back.

Comments like these raise several key questions. These include: on what grounds can an employer refuse to grant annual leave?, can an employer cancel or delay pre-booked annual leave?, and is the COVID-19

Nurses are reporting difficulties in being able to take much-needed time off – find out what the rules are and what your employer is entitled to ask of you

Picture: iStock

In recent weeks, several nurses and other key workers have taken to social media to report problems taking their annual leave entitlement.

Some say their employers are cancelling booked leave as a result of COVID pressures, while others are having their annual leave postponed until later in the year. Some report having to work through their annual leave, and won’t get it back.

Comments like these raise several key questions. These include: on what grounds can an employer refuse to grant annual leave?, can an employer cancel or delay pre-booked annual leave?, and is the COVID-19 pandemic an exception to any existing rules around annual leave?

Annual leave entitlement and your contract of employment

The right to take annual leave is a legal entitlement for most employees in the UK: the minimum legal entitlement for full-time employees is to 28 days, but this can include bank holidays.

Many employers give more than the statutory minimum leave entitlement and your specific entitlement will be set out in your contract of employment.

Your contract will also detail how you request your annual leave and any specific regulations about taking it. This could include:

  • Rules about the maximum number of days that can be taken at one time.
  • If you are required to take or prohibited from having leave at certain times of the year.
  • Reference to the employer’s leave policy, rather than the details being included in the contract.

Your employer’s right to refuse a leave request

An employer can legally refuse a leave request if it would have an operational impact, for example when too many employees are off at the same time, or during busy times of the year.

In addition, an employer is entitled to require an employee to take annual leave at specific times of the year. For instance, when a clinic is closed over a holiday period.

Where an employer finds their business situation has changed since agreeing a period of annual leave with an employee, they can cancel the request and ask the person to take it at a later date.

However, this should be the exception and not the norm. Reasons for doing so may include other workers’ absence meaning staffing levels would go below an acceptable level.

Can COVID staffing pressures be used as a reason to block my leave?

The pandemic does not affect an employee’s legal entitlement to annual paid leave. Neither does it affect the employer’s right to insist annual leave is booked as per local policy, or to cancel or postpone already-booked leave as a result of pressing circumstances.

What has changed, however, is the carrying over of annual leave to another leave year. Normally there is either a requirement that all annual leave is taken in the current leave year, or a maximum number of days can carried over to the next leave year.

But in March 2020, as a response to the pandemic, the government relaxed the rules to allow for up to 20 days’ annual leave to be carried over for as much as two leave years, where it has not been possible to take the leave because of the pandemic. This applies to NHS staff and employees in the independent and social care sector.

Notice periods for booking leave or postponing a staff member’s time off

The general principle about minimum notice period required when booking annual leave is mirrored in relation to the employer’s obligation. However, the obligation is reduced when cancelling or postponing leave. Instead of being twice as long as the period of leave, it has to be at least equal the period of leave.

So, an employer wishing to postpone annual leave lasting one week is required to give the employee at least one week's notice of the cancellation or postponement.

If your leave is postponed, you will be able to rebook it at another time. If it is cancelled, you should be offered the opportunity to rebook. But if this is not possible or desirable, you should receive pay for the loss of your leave entitlement.

Visit Nursing Standard’s nurse well-being centre

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