“Deeply inadequate” statutory sick pay is driving self-isolating workers into hardship
The government has only increased the rate of statutory sick pay by an insulting 50p. At the very least, it should be raised to the living wage and the eligibility expanded so it’s available to all those who need to self-isolate.
This week, we took another step on the government’s roadmap to normality. As society reopens, it is essential that cases of Covid-19 remain low so that hospitals are not overwhelmed, we do all we can to avoid any more tragic deaths and that we do not boomerang back into another lockdown.
Crucial to this is effective testing, contract tracing and isolating of people with the virus. But our privatised test and trace system has been a disaster, with studies concluding that its impact so far has been very limited.
The government has now announced plans to expand testing further. But studies have found that only 50% of people told to self-isolate were fully complying and fewer than one in five people with symptoms requested a test. More testing won’t work unless people self-isolate when they need to - and many simply require proper financial support to do so.
Statistics from February showed that rates of Coronavirus were falling more slowly in the poorest areas. An unpublished government report, leaked to the Guardian, concluded that “unmet financial needs” meant people in more deprived areas were less likely to be able to self-isolate because they could not afford to lose out on wages.
The pandemic has highlighted that workers’ rights in this country are in a sorry state
This comes as little surprise when many workers do not have access to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) and it doesn’t pay those that do enough to live on. While the government has introduced self-isolation payments, the vast majority applying have been refused. Made to choose between staying at home and paying their bills, the TUC has warned that people will be forced to go out to work.
The pandemic has highlighted that workers’ rights in this country are in a sorry state. Many employers in the gig economy in particular are shirking their legal obligations by falsely classing their workers as self-employed, enabling them to avoid having to provide SSP. A recent ruling against Uber in the Supreme Court, forcing them to recognise their drivers as workers, suggests the tide might be turning - but there is still a very long way to go before gig economy workers get the rights they should.
In addition, two million workers do not earn enough to qualify for SSP because they have to be paid at least £120 a week by one employer, even if they earn above that by working two or more jobs.
The rate of Statutory Sick Pay is also deeply inadequate. It stands at £96.35 per week - among the lowest in Europe. SSP in France is generally 50 per cent of an employee’s wages, for example, while in the Netherlands it’s at least 70 per cent.
Over the course of a year-long pandemic, the government has only increased the rate by an insulting 50p. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, admitted he could not live on this amount, so why does he expect my constituents to do so? No one should be driven into hardship through self-isolation.
It’s clear that the government has been unwilling to learn lessons from poorer communities hit hard by the pandemic. At the very least, SSP should be raised to the equivalent of a week’s living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, and the eligibility expanded so it’s available to all those who need to self-isolate. Without action, the current situation threatens public health, undermines the progress we have made and makes ending this pandemic harder.
Nadia Whittome is the Labour MP for Nottingham East.