Sajid Javid has begun a rather dramatic U-turn. Until recently, the health secretary insisted that care workers and frontline NHS staff had to get vaccinated against COVID or find another post, but the policy has now been dropped. Compulsory vaccination is still good health policy, he told fellow MPs, but ministers worry about a plunge in staff numbers. Yet there is a policy that public health officials, doctors and trade unionists have been calling for since the start of the pandemic, and that would not infringe on civil liberties or dent staff numbers: introducing a proper sick pay system. Doing that would reduce the spread of infectious diseases, ease the cost-of-living crisis for the working poor during this pandemic, and be a small step towards a fairer country.
The UK’s statutory sick pay system is in terrible health. The previous health secretary, Matt Hancock, admitted that he couldn’t live on what it pays, currently £96.35 a week. No surprise there: it is among the lowest sick pay in the industrialized world.
Even worse, about 2 million workers do not earn enough to qualify for it, a fact that troubled the government enough to consult on whether to make the regime more generous. Three out of four employers who responded agreed that statutory sick pay should be extended, and small businesses were as supportive as large. Despite such hearty enthusiasm, the welfare secretary, Thérèse Coffey, long-grassed any idea of reform. The motive is probably the same as that behind last autumn’s withdrawal of the £20 boost to universal credit: the government does not want any of its pandemic-era “giveaways” to become permanent. For all that ministers pretend spending cuts are over, this remains a very austere government.
The UK is thus running a huge risk to public health. If waiters think they are coming down with COVID but know they are not eligible for any sick pay, they have every incentive to go to work and cough and splutter over colleagues and customers alike. If care workers suspect they are seriously ill but worry that £96 a week will leave them behind on rent and bills, they have a choice: fall into debt or risk patients getting ill – with potentially serious consequences. These are terrible choices, yet ministers force them on low-paid workers every single day. About 8 million workers – more than a quarter of the labor force – face penury just for falling ill. So much for clapping for careers.
What’s also unfair about this system is who it affects. New research from the IPPR thinktank shows that those people denied sick pay tend to be older or from an ethnic minority and it argues that this reeks of “age and race-based discrimination”.
A healthier sick pay regime would allow anyone to claim it, regardless of low earnings. It would vastly increase mandatory pay and allow workers to claim from day one of their illness. When, in spring 2020, Rishi Sunak announced his measures to prop up the economy and slow the spread of coronavirus, he said: “We’re all in this together.” It was a generous phrase that soon rang hollow, as more and more low-paid workers fell ill just by doing their often essential jobs. The chancellor has had nearly two years to fix the sick pay system. If not now, when?