Workers have been told they can take 28 days off sick without needing a doctor’s note, allowing GPs to focus on the Covid booster rollout.
The government has relaxed previous rules, which meant workers were required to show their employer a GP-signed sick note after seven days to receive sick pay or benefit payments.
The public services union Unison issued a note telling its members: “The UK government has made a temporary change to the provision of ‘fit notes’ until 27 January 2022.
“If you go off sick on or after 10 December 2021, employers can only ask employees for proof of sickness (such as a fit note) after 28 days of sickness (including non-working days).”
Meanwhile Unite told members: “Proof of sickness cannot be requested earlier than 28 days.”
Making sick pay more readily available is thought to be crucial to ensuring people self-isolate and avoid spreading the virus.
The government offers some people on low income a £500 Test and Trace Support Payment if they are told to isolate.
But – amid reports some workers are ignoring positive tests because they cannot afford time off – unions have called for better support to make sure those with Covid are able to stay home.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, told the BBC this week: “The government still hasn’t fixed sick pay to ensure that we don’t spread the virus. Those staff who are sick should be taking proper time off sick, but [sick pay] is only £96 a week.”
Some Conservative MPs have called for the government to reverse the 28-day rule change, which came into force last month, saying it could make the current staffing crisis worse.
Brendan Clarke-Smith, a Tory MP on the education select committee, told the The Telegraph he believed the rule was “open to abuse” particularly in sectors “where we can’t really afford for that to happen”.
He added: “There is a debate to be had about the 28 days – that is quite a long period for someone to be off for, and in terms of what that will do to the workforce.”
Staff shortages across the UK are set to continue.
More than 20 NHS trusts have now declared a “critical incident” amid staggering staffing shortages caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron Covid variant. In the space of a week, the number of NHS staff off work due to Covid rose by 59 per cent.
The armed forces have been drafted in to support the health service in parts of the UK.
Schools, pubs, restaurants and many businesses are also facing shortages as the fast-spreading strain sweeps through the population.
The UK recorded 178,250 new Covid cases in the latest 24-hour period ending 9am on Friday.
Jon Richards, the assistant general secretary of Unison, told The Mail: “These temporary rules were of the government’s making to relieve pressure on GPs.
“Public sector employees have been keeping essential services running throughout the pandemic.
“Most have had no option to work from home, putting them at higher risk of illness as they continue to go into their workplaces.
“Woeful levels of sick pay mean many public sector staff would rather not be off work.”
A government spokesperson said: “To free up capacity for our GPs to support the ramping up of the Covid booster jab rollout, we introduced temporary statutory sick pay changes.
“For any sickness absences which began on or after 10 December 2021, up to and including 26 January 2022, GPs do not need to provide employees with medical evidence of sickness, such as a fit note, for the first 28 days of absence.”
“We encourage everyone eligible to get their booster jab as soon as possible.”
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