'Dangerous backward step'

Unite calls for government to reverse fit note relaxation

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Unite is calling on the government to cancel the relaxation to the fit note system, which the union believes is leading to attacks on employees conditions and could damage workers’ health. Meanwhile, doctors have described the changes to the fit note regime as a ‘drop in the ocean’ compared to the challenges faced by GPs.

Shortly before Christmas the government announced changes to the fit note system in order to relieve pressure on GPs and allow them to concentrate on getting patients the Covid booster vaccine.

Under the government’s changes, an employer can only ask an employee who is off sick for a fit note after 28 days of absence, rather than the usual seven days. This applies to all sickness absences from December 10 and will remain in place until at least January 26. Unite is concerned that, among other issues, this could encourage unscrupulous employers to put pressure on employees’ to return to work sooner than they should.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “The changes to the fit note scheme is a dangerous backward step and could damage the long term health of workers.

“Unite is urging the government to not extend the expanded time period for fit notes beyond the end of January and should not be repeated.

“If the government had consulted or discussed its plans with unions before quadrupling the reporting period for sickness absence we could have warned of the problems this would cause,” she added.

“Unite is dedicated to defending the jobs, pay and conditions of its members,” Graham continued. “If any employer thinks they can use the government’s changes to reduce sick pay or to introduce harsher sickness and absence policies they need to think again as Unite will not allow our members terms and conditions to be eroded.”

The changes to the fit note scheme have led to concerns by Doctors in Unite, whose membership includes GPs. The GP system in the UK is facing unprecedented pressure due to the pandemic and ever increasing workloads.

Putting workers in conflict with their employer about producing a fit note in turn creates conflict with GPs and further undermines the crucial GP patient relationship. In contrast, the delay in the requirement to produce a fit note does not make a significant difference to the challenges that GPs are currently facing.

Doctors in Unite chair Jackie Applebee said, “Fit note extensions are a drop in the ocean and will not save the NHS. GPs are suffering significant burnout due to years of increased workloads coupled with a decreasing workforce. The extension of self-certification for minor illnesses from 7 to 28 days is in the grander scheme of things unlikely to make a significant difference.

“This change has come about because of a problem of challenged resources, not out of medical good sense. The GP-patient relationship has to be supported. It is essential that the government invests in the NHS to support GP appointments – or it will store up trouble for tomorrow.”

While Unite understands the need to ensure maximum take up of booster jabs, the union is concerned the changed fit note policy is damaging public health and workers’ terms and conditions for a variety of reasons including unscrupulous employers putting pressure on employees’ to return to work sooner than they should do which could result in long-term damage to workers’ bodies; some employers using the changes as a catalyst to seek to rewrite and toughen workplace sickness absence policies or to decrease the extent and value of industrial sick pay; and unwell workers who are hesitant about speaking to doctors delaying making contact, which will inevitably result in delays to them receiving treatment for potentially very serious illnesses.

By Barckley Sumner

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