Sick pay U-turn creates dilemmas for frontline staff


Even in a world where contact tracing systems work accurately and efficiently – a sphere we definitely don’t occupy at the moment – such schemes are only effective to the extent that people comply with the notice to self-isolate, and it is here where the Government’s recent U-turn on reforms to statutory sick pay (SSP) have created a rod for its own back.

Current rules mean you must earn more than £120 per week to qualify for weekly payments of £96.35 while ill. As a proportion of the average worker’s income it is one of the meanest support schemes anywhere in the industrialised world, a problem further compounded by the fact that nearly two million don’t even qualify for this meagre entitlement because they earn too little to claim it.

For a further six million workers, SSP isn’t enough for them to pay their bills. But having acknowledged two years ago that there was a case for overhauling the system, the Government is now insisting that it is “not the right time” for reform, even though three-quarters of all businesses large and small that submitted their views during consultation were in favour of extending SSP to those earning less than £120 per week.

Critics such as Mike Brewer, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, have rightly branded the decision as “frankly irresponsible”, particularly amid a pandemic. Extending sick pay to those currently ineligible would not only be a major step forward for those on low pay, but also has the potential to transform our ability to “live with” Covid by giving those who should self-isolate the financial means to do so.

The Government has stressed that its furlough scheme remains the most effective way to provide financial support for staff. However, it seems few employers were aware that this can be used to compensate self-isolating staff, with claims made last month that the Government has actively tried to hide this from businesses.

In any event, the furlough scheme will come to a close at the end of September, and there is no realistic prospect that either the virus or contact tracing will be out of commission by then.

For more than a quarter of the UK workforce, falling ill will simultaneously push them into poverty. Faced with the choice of financial peril versus the potential of passing the virus on to others, it’s wholly predictable that many who are “pinged” as a close Covid contact will feel forced to opt for the latter.

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Posted on August 5, 2021