Eligibility for self-isolation payments must be extended to any worker without access to company sick pay, Labour said today (February 22), warning that failure to do so would risk a fourth national lockdown.
The call, which Unite has backed, comes after Baroness Dido Harding, who heads NHS Test and Trace, said recently that as many as 20,000 people are failing to self-isolate each and every day when instructed to because they cannot afford to stay home without pay.
So far the government has resolutely refused to increase statutory sick pay (SSP), which at £95 a week, is far below what’s needed to maintain even the most basic standard of living. Last year, the government introduced £500 two-week self-isolation payments for low-income workers, but eligibility is so restrictive that most people who have applied have been turned down.
Earlier this month, data from half of England’s councils showed that 70 per cent of people who applied for self-isolation payments were turned down. In one in four of these councils, 90 per cent of people who applied for financial support to self-isolate were denied.
Overall, only one in eight workers are currently eligible for self-isolation payments.
Huge swathes of people who cannot afford to self-isolate risk continuing to spread the virus, which has prompted Labour to call for a radical expansion of eligibility for self-isolation payments to include every worker who does not get sick pay through their employer. Parents whose children are self-isolating should also be eligible, as well as migrant workers who may be currently ineligible for public funds.
The call comes as Labour published a new analysis showing the current national lockdown is costing the economy a whopping £1.6bn a week. With only 3 in 10 people self-isolating when they’ve been told to, the government’s failure to get to grips with financial support for self-isolation risks another damaging lockdown that would only further wreck an economy already on its knees.
As UniteLIVE highlighted last week, in Australia — where coronavirus cases and deaths have been extremely low compared to other countries – workers can afford to self-isolate. All Australian employees are guaranteed 10 days’ sick leave, fully paid by their employer.
Last year, the Australian government introduced additional support for those not previously eligible for the 10 days’ full sick pay, such as casual workers. Now, any worker who lives in specific states in Australia where cases are rising who is not eligible for sick pay or has run out of statutory sick leave days can access a special emergency payment to self-isolate, worth £841 for two weeks.
Commenting on Labour’s latest call, shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said, “Anyone who needs support to self-isolate should be able to access it – no matter where they live or when they develop symptoms. That is the only way we can keep the virus under control when restrictions are lifted, avoid the devastating economic damage of another lockdown and help the vaccine programme succeed.
“However, under the current system just three in 10 people who should be self-isolating are doing so,” she added.
“The Government’s roadmap to recovery must improve the system of self-isolation in this country. That means expanding the Test and Trace Support Payment to those who don’t have a workplace sick pay scheme, better enforcement, and action to fix the broken system of Statutory Sick Pay,” Dodds continued.
“This will help prevent another lockdown, protect public health and secure our economy.”
Labour is also calling for urgent reform of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) as the party highlighted that even health secretary Matt Hancock himself admitted SSP is not enough to live on.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unite has called for a substantial increase in statutory sick pay (SSP), alongside an expansion of eligibility so that everyone, including the self-employed and others who don’t currently qualify for sick pay, can get the support they need to self-isolate.
In November, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey highlighted the case of a self-employed worker in Liverpool, who said he will not download the NHS test and trace app because “he is terrified he will be told to isolate, which he cannot afford to do”.
“As one of the millions of the so-called self-employed in this country he does not qualify for statutory sick pay, and despite having friends die of the disease, he will not use the NHS app, for the same reason,” McCluskey noted on Twitter. “A ping from the app would instantly plunge him into poverty.”
McCluskey slammed the government’s inaction to date.
“This virus feeds off inequality, targeting the poor and the vulnerable, sadly to be found in shameful levels in the UK, the fifth richest economy on earth,” he wrote in a Tribune comment last month. “But this government is making deliberate choices. Its failure to provide sick pay that people can live on and where all workers who need it can receive it is a conscious, ideological act but this pandemic will not be defeated until the diabolical choice between health and income has been removed.”
By Hajera Blagg