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The TUC has warned that cutting self-isolation will not fix the fact that low statutory sick pay means many have to choose between extreme hardship and going to work.
Reducing the self-isolation period from seven to five full days in England won’t fix the country’s fundamental sick pay problem, the TUC has warned.
The TUC says that without decent sick pay available to all, the self-isolation system will fail – pointing out that workers on low or no sick pay face “the impossible choice” of self-isolating and facing hardship or putting food on the table but potentially spreading the virus.
From today, people will be able to leave isolation after negative lateral flow tests on days five and six.
The TUC estimates around a quarter of a million private sector workers (267,800) were self-isolating without decent sick pay or any sick pay at all in mid-December (13 to 26 December). Around 209,900 workers had to rely on statutory sick pay, which it says is too low to meet basic living costs, and 57,900 got no sick pay at all.
The TUC has branded the huge numbers “a serious public health failure.”
It estimates around three in 10 private sector workers rely on statutory sick pay, and just under one in 10 get nothing – leaving over a third of private sector workers without decent sick pay or any sick pay at all.
It says the UK has the least generous statutory sick pay in Europe, worth just £96.35 per week – around 15 per cent of average earnings, compared to an OECD average of over 60 per cent. And it is only available to employees earning £120 per week or more – meaning two million workers nationwide, mostly women, do not qualify.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “No one should be forced to choose between doing the right thing and self-isolating or putting food on the table.
“But that was exactly the choice facing a quarter of a million private sector workers last month, as the Omicron variant raged across the country. This is a serious public health failure.
“It beggars belief that two years into the pandemic, statutory sick pay is still too little to live on and two million workers can’t get any sick pay at all.
“Ministers can’t continue to turn a blind eye to this vital public health tool. We need decent sick pay – paid at the real Living Wage – available to everyone.”
She also commented on moves to cut sick pay for unvaccinated staff who are forced to isolate because they have been in contact with someone with Omicron after announcements by Ikea, Next, Morrisons and Ocado. She said: “Unions have been encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and boosted. But cutting sick pay is no way to encourage workers to get the jab. And it would be an own goal for public health too, risking further transmission of the virus.”
Lawyers have warned that cutting sick pay for unvaccinated people may be discriminatory. However, they say companies have discretion to withhold sick pay from those who are self-isolating but not unwell, but have chosen to be unvaccinated. Meanwhile, government lawyers have said any legal challenge against making low-paid people take confirmatory PCR tests to get financial support would stand a high chance of success. Legal advice to the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) warns there is a risk of a challenge under equalities law, as it could be argued that lower socioeconomic groups would be disadvantaged by the move to scrap confirmatory PCR Covid tests for everyone if they were still required to get them to access support during isolation.