Amid the flurries of stories about Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock trading insults last week, one piece of news slipped relatively under the radar. Leaked emails from senior civil servants found by Politico revealed that the Treasury suppressed information explaining to employers that the furlough scheme could be used to pay the sick pay wages of those needing to self-isolate.
This is just one among countless cases that show how backwards the government’s approach to sick pay has been during the pandemic. Statutory sick pay, or SSP, is the minimum payment from your employer you get if you have to take time off for illness, and during Covid it has been a vital lifeline for workers forced to stay at home, either because they tested positive or came into contact with someone else who did.
But the minimum rate of SSP in the UK sits at just £96.35 a week – the equivalent of roughly 20% of the average UK weekly wage, and one of the lowest rates in Europe. And that’s just for those with access. For the almost two million workers who earn less than a £120 a week, there’s no statutory support whatsoever.
During a pandemic, failing to properly increase the rate and availability of sick pay has disastrous consequences. Polling for the Trade Union Congress (TUC) found that 40% of workers say they would have to go into debt, or into arrears on their bills, if their income dropped to the current level of SSP. For already underpaid and precariously employed care workers, another survey put the figure at 80%.
That discrepancy cuts to the contradiction at the core of the issue during Covid. Statutory sick pay, used largely by low-paid key workers, is supposed to enable people to self-isolate. If the rate of SSP is so low it drives you into debt, it creates a ‘perverse incentive’ for workers to go into work even after being told to stay home. It’s that or risk destitution that month. And you can see some of that impact – in the UK just 15-30% of people are said to self-isolate for the entire required period. With that has come an inescapable increase in Covid infections, and tragically, more deaths.
There is also the cost of the added infections as a result. Even the most conservative estimates from academics suggest an SSP increase would pay for itself almost twice over, as a reduction in the number of infections means you have to spend less on self-isolation, medical care, and other measures down the line. In simple terms, better sick pay is cheaper, and it saves lives.
Once you start to look abroad you realise how strange our system really is. The UK has the second lowest statutory sick pay policy in Europe, just above Malta. The vast majority of EU countries are covered by sickness benefits of 70-100% of income. In Sweden, workers get roughly 80% of their normal wage while they isolate; in Germany, employees receive full pay for up to six weeks.
During Covid alone, half of all OECD countries have either launched or expanded statutory sick pay provisions. The UK has instead tried to obscure workers’ access to sick pay. That’s on top of the fact that the UK’s sick pay rate is so low it was found to be in breach of international law in 2018.
But this problem runs deeper than the pandemic. Once Covid is suppressed, workers will still get sick from normal illnesses, and will still face having to survive on less than a third of the average minimum wage. Economically, countless studies have found that higher rates of sick pay, as in Germany, end up being a boost for the economy by increasing productivity, reducing viral outbreaks, and reducing absenteeism due to disease relapses. Medically, being incentivised to work when sick can worsen whatever health problems someone is facing, and even risk transmitting all kinds of diseases – which has particular implications for, say, low-paid staff in sterile environments like hospitals.
More than that, it’s a question of basic rights and securities. From holiday pay to minimum wage, there are certain responsibilities we place on companies. With sick pay, the government has set the bar so low that for the workers most in need, it ends up being almost irrelevant. The very precarious, underpaid workers least in a position to afford to take time off without pay are the most likely to be offered the bare minimum of SSP by their employers: it’s not white-collar professionals with above-minimum sick pay in their contracts that take the hit, but the outsourced cleaners at London hospitals told they have to survive on £96 a week when they were forced to take time off work for cancer treatment (a story I wish wasn’t a real life example).
Trade unions have called for sick pay to increase for years, but nothing has been done. One plan by the TUC called for sick pay to increase £330 a week, the equivalent of the weekly real living wage, which would roughly bring the UK in line with the rest of Europe. Alongside that, they proposed an end to waiting periods and abolishing the earnings threshold that excludes around two million workers. But instead of offering the long-term financial commitment required to increase sick pay, the government has favoured short-term solutions, like a £500 self-isolation payment that has proved hard for many to access.
And at its core, the government’s lack of substance on sick pay is emblematic of its entire platform. It’s like highlighting your commitment to adult education and skills before slashing support to the Union Learning Fund, despite the government earning £3.57 for every £1 spent on it. Or like making big promises since the election to solve our social care crisis, while cancelling meetings on the issue and failing to produce any real plans for reform. Or making flashy programmes to get laptops into schools, while driving their education catch-up tsar Kevan Collins to resign after offering just 10% (or £22 per child) of the catch-up money needed to properly address the impact of Covid.
As one headteacher whose primary school in North London faces severe budget shortfalls put it, this government favours ‘catchy’ policies than draw a good headline rather than substantial investment and change. It’s hardly surprising from a Prime Minister who as London Mayor spent around £940m on extravagant, headline-grabbing projects like cable cars and unfeasible garden bridges and a Chancellor who is said to be desperate to reduce long-term public spending once we escape the pandemic.
The issue is that you can only offer these skin-deep solutions to worsening problems in society before the cracks start to show. You can only plug so many holes in the dam with your fingers before it bursts. On sick pay, evasion has already come at the cost of many human lives.