The decision was made in a case brought by Spanish trade unions against a group of department stores.

The Court said that the timing of an illness was irrelevant and that workers should be entitled to four weeks holiday per year. If the holiday was interrupted by illness, they should be able to take time off when they recover.

The UK Government is currently negotiating with EU members on the scope of the Working Time Directive as it looks for ways to cut the burden on employers. The decision by the European Court of Justice could make it harder for minsters to push their plans forward.

Employment Relations Minister, Norman Lamb, said: “We do not believe that the directive had to be interpreted in this way, which involves extra cost for business. Most employees accept that if they fall il
l while on holiday it is unfortunate, but they do not expect extra holiday.”

“This judgment reinforces the need for a reassessment of the scope of the Working Time Directive.”

Guy Bailey, head of employment relations at the CBI, believes the ruling will hurt British businesses. He said: “With the rules under discussion again in Brussels, the CBI would like to see the judgments reversed so that the directive is focused on the health and safety of the workforce, as originally intended.”

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