At the time of writing Britain has the 7th worst COVID death rate out of 195 countries in the world and the 2nd worst rate amongst the ‘major nations’ with populations over 20 million. There are many reasons why this might be the case but foremost amongst these has to be the scandal of our Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) provision.
SSP is the minimum which employers have to pay to staff who are absent due to illness for up to 28 weeks. The current rate of SSP is a shocking £95.85 per week. To put that figure into context, the average UK private rent is £161.66 and the average for household bills is £194.02. SSP barely even scratches the surface of these costs and that is without considering food, council tax and the myriad of expenses that working families have to incur simply to exist at a basic, day to day functioning level.
All of this is particularly vital in the context of COVID as the government changed the rules early in the pandemic to confirm that SSP would be the basic level of entitlement for those off work due to the virus. This includes those who are ill but also those who are required to self-isolate on public health advice (although somewhat bizarrely it does not extend to those returning to the UK from countries outside of the travel corridor).
The huge problem that this creates is that employees who have mild COVID symptoms or are required to self-isolate know that if they do the ‘right thing’ and stay off work they are creating financial difficulties for their household. This is because, in the event of a positive test, it is likely that both the employee themselves and any other earners in the household would need to self-isolate for 14 days on £95.85 per week. Faced with this situation, many employees have opted to do the ‘wrong thing’ (despite understandable reasons) and keep their heads down in the hope that no-one at work cottons onto the fact that they are looking a bit peaky.
Needless to say, this scenario is a disaster from the point of view of infection control. As Frances O’Grady of the TUC rightly comments:
‘The lack of decent sick pay is undermining Britain’s public health effort and is forcing workers to choose between doing the right thing and being plunged into hardship.”
In fairness, the government did belatedly recognise the problem and in September 2020 introduced a new scheme under which individuals who are required to self-isolate can reclaim ‘Test and Trace Support Payments’ of up to £500 a week towards their living costs. The new Support Payments though are subject to means testing and delegated to local authorities to administer.
Unfortunately, there is now a growing body of evidence which suggests that the Support Payments have been largely ineffective in supporting those off work. The logic of making this a ‘means tested’ scheme is questionable as whilst those on lowest incomes are undoubtedly hit the hardest, SSP also creates a considerable hit on middle income earners who are unable to access this support.
The delegated nature of the scheme has also created a ‘postcode lottery’ with different councils applying different eligibility criteria. According to recent CIPD research, Camden Council approved 75 per cent of applications. In comparison, only 23 per cent of applications received by Liverpool City Council were approved, and Sandwell Council approved just 16 per cent.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Test and Trace Support Payments are yet another example of the government doing too little too late and applying a sticking plaster to our larger systemic problem of SSP. The vaccine may well turn out to the magic bullet to get the UK out of its current predicament but we will remain vulnerable to public health outbreaks as long as we continue to pay sick pay at below the level of a decent living wage.
This blog is by Mark Alaszewski, solicitor at Didlaw