Any attempts to control the coronavirus pandemic through test and trace efforts are doomed to fail unless statutory sick pay (SSP) is increased as a matter of urgency, the TUC has warned.
A new poll carried out on behalf of the TUC has found 4 in 10 people would be plunged into financial hardship if they had to self-isolate on SSP, which at present stands at just £95.85 a week.
For those on lower incomes earning below £15,000 a year, half would not be able to survive, the survey found. More than a quarter of those polled said they only have recourse to SSP because their employer provides no sick pay.
The UK offers among the lowest rates of statutory sick pay in all of Europe, second only to Malta, with SSP covering less than 20 per cent of average UK wages. And even despite such abysmally low sick pay rates, about two million very low-income workers, as well as those who are self-employed, don’t even qualify for SSP.
Others ineligible for SSP include those receiving statutory maternity, paternity, adoption or additional paternity pay.
From September 1, a new government scheme will grant some low-paid workers excluded from SSP who in areas with high rates of Covid -19 a payment of £130 for the 10 days they may need to self-isolate – a mere £13 a day. The scheme has begun with a trial in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, but critics have lambasted the government for paying these workers even less than the very low SSP rates.
The TUC survey also found that amid a concurrent economic crisis, family budgets are especially squeezed now, which makes inadequate SSP rates especially worrying during a pandemic.
Of the more than 20,000 people polled, one in three said they had to cut back spending to avoid running out of money at the end of the month, and almost one in four said their levels of debt had increased in the last three months.
The TUC survey follows another poll by the GMB last week which found that one group of absolutely essential workers amid the pandemic – social care staff, many of whom are on poverty pay – would suffer especially from low statutory sick pay rates.
The survey of more than 1,000 workers in the care sector found that more than 80 per cent would not be able to afford to take time off sick, with almost just as many reporting saying they would be forced to borrow from family or friends or take on debt in order make ends meet after being off sick.
Low-paid workers forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods is not a mere hypothetical concern. Most recently, workers at a Banham Poultry chicken factory in Norfolk – an epicenter of a recent Covid-19 outbreak – said their colleagues turned up for work despite showing coronavirus symptoms because they could not afford to stay home.
“People were afraid to take sick leave, because sick pay is so low,” one worker told the BBC.
Earlier on in the pandemic, health secretary Matt Hancock himself admitted that he would not be able to survive on statutory sick pay alone if he had to self-isolate.
The TUC is now calling on the government to raise SSP to £320 a week, the rate of the real Living Wage, and to extend sick pay to all workers so that no one misses out.
Commenting, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said, “We all want NHS Test and Trace to work. It’s crucial for stopping the spread of Covid-19 and for getting our economy back on its feet.
“But the lack of decent sick pay puts everything at risk. Asking workers to self-isolate on £96 a week is not viable – especially when many don’t have savings to fall back on.
“We can’t have a situation where people are forced to choose between their health and paying their bills,” she added.
“Employers must do their civic duty and make sure workers can self-isolate on full pay. But where bosses can’t or won’t the government must step in.
“Unless ministers fix this gaping hole in our safety net Britain will be ill-prepared for a second wave of infections or more local lockdowns,” O’Grady went on to say.
“The government must ensure that everyone has access to sick pay and raise the basic rate to at least the real living wage of £320 a week.”
Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail agreed.
“The UK’s pitifully low statutory sick pay rates, or even worse the measly £13 a day now being offered to two million of the lowest-paid workers, presents people with a stark choice – they either self-isolate and stop the spread of the virus, or work to feed their families and pay the bills,” she said.
“This isn’t a choice in any real sense of the word – people’s immediate needs, like food and housing, will of course always trump all other considerations,” she added. “If the government really wants to get to grips with this virus, it must acknowledge the hardship facing millions of people who want to do the right thing and self-isolate if needed, but simply cannot because they do not have the means to do so.
“Of greatest concern is public-facing workers delivering services, especially in health and social care employed on inferior contracts compared with directly employed workers,” Cartmail went on to say. “It is hideous and short- sighted that in hospitals, care homes and schools, some workers have no choice other than to play ‘Russian roulette’ with their own health, their family and work colleagues.
“We call on the government to adopt the TUC’s recommendations and raise SSP to levels paid in comparable economies, while also expanding eligibility so that no one misses out on sick pay.
“We also urge every worker to join a union – unionised workers are much more likely to receive full contractual sick pay and will also benefit from support if they are treated unfairly.”
By Hajera Blagg