Fighting the Pandemic Means Fixing Sick Pay

Britain's shamefully low sick pay forces workers to choose between self-isolation and paying the bills – if the government is serious about tackling Omicron, it needs to raise it.

The UK has the least generous statutory sick pay (SSP) in Europe. Credit: Getty Images

On Sunday, in response to growing fears around the spread of a new variant, the government introduced new measures to tackle Covid-19.

Masks are now compulsory in shops and on public transport in England, and there are additional rules for self-isolation and testing on arrival into the country.

The new measures are welcome—the TUC has backed calls from unions to reintroduce mask wearing on public transport and in shops. But the government has again refused to address a persistent, glaring problem with its pandemic response: the lack of decent sick pay for all.

The Problem with the Sick Pay System

Sick pay has been a clear problem since the start of the pandemic. The UK has the least generous statutory sick pay (SSP) in Europe. As it stands, SSP is just £96.35 per week, and only available to employees earning £120 per week or more. For those who do receive it, this is far from enough to live off, working out at just 18 percent of the average weekly wage.

Employers can choose to pay more, but not all do. Around a quarter of workers receive just SSP when off work ill. And around one-in-ten receive nothing at all.

This leaves around a third of workers—over 10 million people—with sick pay that is too low to meet basic living costs, or no sick pay at all. This particularly affects low-paid and insecure workers—those who are also least likely to have savings they can get by on. Around half of low-paid workers receive SSP or nothing at all when off work sick. And this rises to over eight in 10 of those in insecure work.

Without access to decent sick pay workers face a stark choice if they get symptoms or are told to self-isolate: risk going into work with symptoms, or face a massive hit to your income that will leave you without enough for basic essentials like food and fuel.

The Government’s Refusal to Fix It

In March 2020, the TUC called for government to improve the sick pay system and make decent sick pay available for all. SSP should be available to every worker from day one of illness or isolation. And it should be worth at least the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage.

But ministers only made minor improvements. Employees usually have to wait three days before they can claim SSP, but this waiting period was scrapped for those with Covid-19. And that’s as far as the improvements went.

Almost two years on, we are still waiting for SSP to be increased and to be made available for all. Boris Johnson’s team continues to refuse calls to increase the SSP rate. And in July 2021, they U-turned on a previous promise to scrap the lower earnings limit, which would have made SSP available to the around two million employees who earn less than £120 per week.

The Failing Temporary Scheme

Instead of making any improvements to the existing system, the government instead decided to introduce the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme. Launched in September 2020, already six months into the pandemic, it provides a £500 payment for low-paid workers who have been required to self-isolate.

But it’s an inadequate mess. The scheme is split into two: 1) a main scheme, with strict criteria set by central government, and 2) a discretionary scheme, with criteria set by councils.

While funding for the main scheme is unlimited, the initial funding for the discretionary scheme was completely insufficient. Councils could set their own criteria, but ministers told them that once the funding had run out, there’d be no top up. This lack of funding forced them to make rules so strict and tight that many people who need support are ineligible.

In January 2021, the TUC sent freedom of information requests to hundreds of councils and found a scheme in disarray. 70 percent of applicants to the scheme got rejected. A postcode lottery had developed for the discretionary scheme—in some areas, only one percent of applications to the scheme had been accepted. Numerous councils were running out of money and topping it up themselves. Some councils had even been forced to close the discretionary scheme.

Initially planned to last only a few months, the scheme has since been extended and funding increased. In May, the TUC again sent out FOIs to see if this had helped. The rejection rate had dropped only slightly, down from 70 percent to 64 percent, but unmet need remains high.

The importance of sick pay during a pandemic is that it gives workers confidence that they’ll be supported as soon as they get symptoms or are told to self-isolate. The current UK sick pay scheme clearly fails to meet this need. Workers must apply once ill or self-isolating, and even if they overcome the odds and their application is accepted, they might not receive the payment until a while after that. That’s if they’ve even heard of the scheme—our research found that barely anyone has.

The lack of decent, dependable sick pay is a barrier to self-isolation, with financial hardship a key factor in whether people self-isolate. It also affects whether people get tested in the first place. A pilot study of mass community testing in Liverpool found that ‘fear of income loss from self-isolation was a key barrier to testing’.

Decent Sick Pay for All, Now

Throughout the pandemic, the government has refused to do the right thing and improve the existing inadequate sick pay system. Instead, as in many other aspects of its response to the pandemic, its insisted on a shoddy short-term solution. The spread of a new variant is cause for fresh concern that these temporary fixes aren’t good enough. We need decent sick pay for all, and we need it now.

Requiring masks is important, but it’s a travesty that the workers in those same shops aren’t guaranteed decent sick pay should they develop symptoms. Sick pay must be raised to the equivalent of a real living wage, and it must be made available to all. Without decent sick pay for all, the government continues to put lives and livelihoods at risk.