Instead, after months of inaction, we’ve seen the introduction of a flawed and inadequate £500 self-isolation payment.
The consequences of the government’s failure to address the UK’s sick pay problem are clear: workers will be forced to choose between financial hardship or going into work with symptoms.
If it seriously wants to tackle the spread of Covid-19, government must raise SSP to the equivalent of a week’s Real Living Wage and make it available to all.
Why is a rise in sick pay needed?
Statutory sick pay (SSP) is just £96 per week. This is around one-fifth of average weekly earnings.
This means that if the average worker is expected to self-isolate on SSP for two weeks, their income will drop by around £850.
No one should face financial hardship due to being ill. But this becomes even more of a problem during a pandemic. It’s dangerous to have such a low rate of SSP during a time when tackling the spread of Covid-19 requires people to stay off work if they may be infected.
Employers can choose to offer a high rate of sick pay. This is known as occupational sick pay. A TUC/BritainThinks survey carried out in summer found that while 57 per cent of workers do receive full sick pay, around a quarter of workers do not. Concerningly, those who work outside the home are over twice as likely than those who can work from home to be paid only SSP.
SSP itself is not available to everyone. 9 per cent of workers told us they receive nothing at all when off sick. The reasons for this are earnings or employment status. Almost two million workers miss out on SSP due to not earning enough to be eligible. Around five million workers will miss out due to being self-employed and instead have to apply for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), which is £20 per week less than SSP.
What’s the self-isolation payment?
The self-isolation payment is a £500 payment for workers on low incomes who have to self-isolate and are unable to work from home.
Current government guidance requires those with Covid-19 symptoms to self-isolate for ten days. Those who live with someone with symptoms, or have been contacted by the test and trace service, must self-isolate for two weeks. The payment covers the full period of self-isolation and is available to those who are in-work and receive in-work benefits, Housing Benefit or Pension Credit.
The payment was announced in September, but not implemented until October. This is because local authorities needed time to quickly set up the scheme from scratch. While those who had to self-isolate from 28 September onwards could have their payment backdated, this still meant that the government’s fix for the country’s sick pay problem came into effect more than six months after the first lockdown measures were announced.
Why isn’t it good enough?
The late arrival of the scheme would be less damaging if it was worth the wait. Instead, it’s flawed and inadequate. A key issue is around access to the scheme. The Resolution Foundation points out that while the focus on low-income workers is positive, 7-in-8 workers are not eligible for the payment and will therefore still rely on SSP or occupational sick pay if told to self-isolate.
A discretionary element to the scheme means that councils can choose to give the payment to those who don’t meet the main criteria. This is a good move, and means that councils can set their own criteria for eligibility. It’s therefore worth looking at council’s websites to find out their approach. It could, for example, mean that those with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) would be able to access the payment. However, funding for the discretionary payment is currently a fixed amount that is intended to cover the period from October to January. There’s no guarantee it will be topped up if needed, or extended beyond this.
This means that councils may be strict with the discretionary payment due to fears the funding will run out. If faced by high demand, due to an outbreak or increased testing, they may run out completely.
There are other flaws to the scheme. The payment is not available to parents and carers who must take time off work due to their children being told to self-isolate. And those who are told to self-isolate by the Covid-19 app cannot currently claim the self-isolation payment via the app, despite the promise of a button that would allow users to do so. Instead, app users will currently only be eligible for the payment if contacted by the test and trace service.
The government should raise sick pay instead
The key problem is that this late, flawed system was introduced when a much simpler option existed from the very start. The government could simply raise the existing level of SSP to equivalent of the Real Living Wage and make it available to all.
We’ve been pushing the government to introduce these much-needed fixes since the start of the pandemic, yet these calls have been ignored to the detriment of public health.
The government has instead opted to create a new, flawed system that had to be set up from scratch and advertised to raise awareness. This reflects the government’s preference for insufficient short-term fixes.
But if the government is serious about stopping the spread of Covid-19, we need more: it must finally fix SSP.
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