Coronavirus: Lack of sick pay and poor access to healthcare risks rapid spread of infections across US and UK, governments warned

Workers forced to choose between ‘health and hardship’ as numbers infected by deadly virus rise around the world

Harry Cockburn
Monday 02 March 2020 15:44 GMT
Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth calls for "better support" for people on statutory sick pay

Workers without access to paid sick leave could spread coronavirus more rapidly as they face the choice of either continuing to turn up at work, or dealing with the potentially devastating financial impacts of not being paid.

The government has warned it was now “inevitable” the deadly virus would “become endemic” in the UK as 13 more cases of Covid-19 were announced over the weekend, bringing the total number to 36.

In the United States, the issue is more seriously compounded by the lack of freely available healthcare.

Though people experiencing respiratory illness have been advised to seek medical help early, around a fifth of US citizens have no health insurance at all, and previous research indicates as many as 40 per cent of Americans avoid trips to the doctor or hospital where possible due to the unfettered costs which can rack up, even if they have some level of cover.

“Missing a day of work can be financially catastrophic for them and mean the difference between making rent or not, making a car payment or not or feeding their family or not,” employment law attorney Donna Ballman, told CNN.

One US citizen, who had recently returned from China and felt seriously unwell, told the Miami Herald he decided it was worth going to hospital for a check-up. He was diagnosed with influenza by doctors, and had not contracted the coronavirus.

The simple diagnosis cost him $3,270, of which, due to his limited insurance plan, he still had to pay $1,400.

In the UK, statutory sick pay is worth just £94.25 a week for employees who earn at least £118 a week, and is only payable after four days in a row of sickness, though many companies have more generous schemes. After seven working days, statutory sick pay is only payable if a sick note from a doctor is presented to employers, therefore necessitating a visit to a GP.

For those who may not qualify for any help at all, including some workers who are self-employed, work part time or are on zero-hours contracts, the virus represents a major threat to their financial stability. However, the government has urged people in this situation to contact the Department for Work and Pensions as they may be able to claim universal credit or other benefits.

Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) has told employers “it’s good practice” to treat those off work due to coronavirus – both sufferers and those self-isolating – as taking sick leave and follow their usual sick pay policy or agree for the time to be taken as holiday.

“Otherwise there’s a risk the employee will come to work because they want to get paid. They could then spread the virus, if they have it,” the organisation said.

Shadow health and social care secretary Jonathan Unsworth said on Monday the UK government “needs to step in and do something for low-paid workers and those who are not eligible for statutory sick pay and those who are on zero hours contracts.”

He told the BBC: “If more and more people getting the virus are being asked to self-isolate, I don’t want low-paid workers to be forced to make a choice between their own health or hardship.”

He also said he was urging the government “to consider an emergency funding package for the NHS”, to help deal with the virus.

The government has warned levels of infections in the UK will get worse before the situation gets better.

“Given the recent increases in international case numbers, especially Europe, it is highly likely that we will soon see some instances of community transmission in the UK," he said.

“The best way to protect yourself from infections like coronavirus is to wash your hands more frequently with soap and water or use a sanitizer gel, as well as always carrying tissues and using them to catch coughs and sneezes, then putting the tissue in a bin. Every individual has a role to play in preventing the spread of this virus.”

In the US, Donald Trump credited himself for stopping direct flights from China, when the virus broke out, claiming on Monday - without providing evidence - that he had “saved many lives”.

He also urged US citizens to remain “calm and vigilant”.

A spokesperson for the UK government's Department for Work and Pensions told The Independent: “Our staff are ready to support people if they are affected – we urge them to contact us by phone, or their work coach via their online journal, to explain their situation.

“Anyone not eligible to receive sick pay is able to claim universal credit and/or contributory employment and support allowance.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in