Fix the Damn Sick Pay

The government is ending self-isolation requirements and urging 'personal responsibility' instead – but as the pandemic proved, it's hard to be 'responsible' when sick pay is so low that staying off work means not making rent.

From 24 March, workers with coronavirus will have to wait until their fourth day of sickness before they can get SSP, rather than receiving pay from day one. (SeventyFour / Getty Images)

The debate about Covid restrictions is increasingly framed as an ideological binary—between people who are inherently pro-lockdown, or inherently against it. But far less attention has been paid to the practical questions, including just how badly pandemic restrictions have been designed and implemented in the Britain from the pandemic’s start.

Nothing seems to prove that more than the announcement last week. Besides rolling back mask rules and ending the self-isolation mandate if you test positive for the virus—the choice to self-isolate will instead now come down to ‘personal responsibility’—free Covid tests are now being scrapped, despite the fact that the move is unpopular with almost everyone. Even the Cabinet is reportedly split, while Labour and the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have all expressed opposition.

Instead, the private sector is being invited to meet people’s need to know if they have Covid. Highstreet retailer Boots has said it will begin selling lateral flow tests for £5.99 from this week. The price is reportedly set to slightly lower in the coming months, but nonetheless, for the worst off among a growing cost of living crisis, or for the roughly 10.6 million key workers who still find themselves having to test multiple times a week to be able to go to their in-person work, the cost of that move (several hundreds of pounds each year) could be impossible to bear.

As a result, millions could now be left with no way to know if they or anyone they know has the virus. The feasibility of applying a ‘personal responsibility’ approach to self-isolation is questionable when you can’t afford to find out if you’re sick in the first place.

Then there’s Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). From 24 March, workers with coronavirus will have to wait until their fourth day of sickness before they can get SSP, rather than receiving pay from day one. That’s despite the fact that Covid infectivity has been found to peak soon after the appearance of symptoms.

Nearly eight million workers, or roughly twenty-seven percent of the entire UK workforce, are reliant on SSP when they get ill. A further two million earning less than £120 aren’t given any protection at all because they’re deemed to be earning too little to deserve the luxury of getting sick without endangering their livelihood.

At a rate £96.35 per week, the UK has the second lowest SSP policy in Europe. The vast majority of EU countries are covered by sickness benefits of upwards of seventy percent of income. In Sweden, workers get roughly eighty percent of their normal wage while they isolate. That figure has hit 100 percent of income during Covid in Austria, Iceland, Luxembourg, Finland, Chile, Norway, and countless more countries, too.

Meanwhile, our Prime Minister has spent this last week telling British workers that we need to ‘learn’ from ‘disciplined’ Germans and stay off work when we’re ill. Johnson is seemingly unaware of the fact that his own failure to improve sick or keep day-one provision may have some impact on why workers can’t afford to self-isolate—not to mention that Germany is one of the countries that offers workers full pay when they’re sick, for up to eight weeks.

On average, as of July 2020, pandemic sick leave support replaced seventy percent of an eligible employee’s wage during a four‑week Covid‑19 sickness spell on average across OECD countries, despite the UK doing its best to pull that average down by providing just ten percent of the average worker’s pay. The only change to sick pay in the UK during Covid was to introduce a £500 self-isolation payment—a payment that only twenty-one percent of workers knew existed, and for which twenty-four percent of surveyed councils reported running out of discretionary funding. The UK’s sick pay rate is actually so low it was found to be in breach of international law in 2018.

The TUC and trade unions like the GMB have been calling for significant reform to sick pay for years, backed by more recent evidence showing that forty percent of workers would have to go into debt or arrears if their income dropped to the current level of SSP. The outcome? Those with Covid or suspected Covid will be forced to head into work anyway, and will likely then be chastised by those in power for their failure of ‘personal responsibility’.

Far from beyond the norm, these changes are indicative of the approach the Conservative government takes to politics more generally: if there’s support in place, cut or remove it, and then blame those inevitably forced into positions of sickness, precarity, or poverty as a result for their individual failings of character. This kind of short-sighted and short-termist thinking plagues every aspect of this government, from its policies on poverty and healthcare to austerity—and it almost always comes with a dire long-term cost.