Millions of workers face financial hardship if they fall ill or must self-isolate after chancellor Rishi Sunak failed to announce measures in his budget adequate enough to protect them during the coronavirus outbreak.
In his budget unveiled on Wednesday (March 11), Sunak appeared to try only to inoculate businesses from the economic hit of coronavirus, while millions of insecure workers will be forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods.
Despite granting businesses billions as part of a coronavirus support package, Sunak failed to extend statutory sick pay (SSP) to millions of low-paid and self-employed workers ineligible for it. He likewise did nothing to raise statutory sick pay levels overall, which, at £94.25 a week, are among the lowest in all of Europe.
In fact, Malta is the only country that provides a lower rate of statutory sick pay that the UK. The UK is also one of only four countries in Europe where self-employed workers are not entitled to SSP.
Self-employed and low-paid workers ineligible for SSP – about one fifth of the total workforce — will now amid the outbreak only be entitled to benefits such as Universal Credit, which can leave claimants waiting up to five weeks for the first payment.
Sunak announced a £500m hardship fund for local authorities to deal with the outbreak, but Unite has highlighted this falls far short of what is needed to meet the social care challenges posed by coronavirus.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner slammed the inadequate response to the outbreak.
“There is still a huge hole in the government’s coronavirus prevention planning and that is what help are they providing for low waged and insecure workers, of which there are millions, who don’t get statutory sick pay?” he said.
“It is not appropriate to claim that our broken benefits system can cope or assist these workers, and it is certainly not feasible to expect workers who do qualify for SSP to be expected to live on less than 14 quid a day,” he added. “It is a disgrace that the level is so low, among the lowest in Europe, and that low level is now an actual public danger because workers won’t stay away from risky workplaces if they fear financial hardship.”
Sunak boasted his first budget as chancellor represented the government’s biggest spending plans on record – with funding announced in multiple areas including transport, the NHS, broadband, education and more.
But Unite has highlighted that such pledges will not be enough to reverse a decade of severe austerity, nor will they be enough to weather a recession that’s increasingly likely with the added economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Forecast economic growth for the next several years is well below two per cent – a figure significantly lower than in the years before the financial crisis.
Such growth forecasts are especially worrying for those on low pay, who received nothing in this budget to see them through an unending economic slump.
With incomes for the poorest fifth of households having fallen by more than 4 per cent over the past two financial years, Sunak pledged only an already-announced rise to the minimum wage – and that too, only “if economic conditions allow”.
Unite has also expressed concern that with Brexit uncertainty still remaining the biggest worry for manufacturing and other sectors, the budget included no forecasts for the impact of EU and US trade deals or a subsequent no deal scenario, which Unite has said is still a stark possibility.
“The chancellor has ripped through the magic money forest to try to inject some life back into the ailing UK economy,” Turner said. “The question is, will it be enough to repair the vandalism of ten years of deliberate austerity and lowering of living standards and cope with the economic crisis that could accompany the spread of the coronavirus?”