Government accused of ‘penny pinching’ after refusing to extend sick pay – despite Covid ‘pingdemic’

Low-paid workers ‘abandoned at worst possible time’, says TUC

Adam Forrest@adamtomforrest
Tuesday 20 July 2021 19:51
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Today's daily politics briefing

The government has been accused of “penny pinching” after it rejected the chance to expand sick pay during the Covid crisis, despite the growing army of workers forced to self-isolate at home.

Millions of workers are expected to be “pinged” by the NHS Covid app and told to isolate this summer – leaving many of those forced to stay off work at risk of hardship.

The government had promised to consider expanding the eligibility of statutory sick pay so more low-paid workers could get access – but announced on Tuesday that there would be no changes to the rules.

“The government has abandoned millions of low-paid workers at the worst possible time,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

“This is yet another example of short-sighted penny pinching from the Treasury, which is undermining Britain’s public health effort.”

Ms O’Grady added: “With Covid cases going through the roof, its refusal to make sick pay available for all is grossly irresponsible and will help drive infections still higher.”

Leading unions and think tanks have urged the government to allow all workers in the UK access to statutory sick pay by removing the lower earnings limit.

An estimated two million UK workers in part-time or insecure work in the gig economy do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay – and 70 per cent of these workers are women.

The opposition and unions also called for statutory sick pay to be hiked from £95 a week, arguing it was not enough to encourage workers to continue to follow self-isolation rules.

Unison’s general secretary Christina McAnea said the £95-a-week sum was so low that many workers still can’t afford to stay home when they’re ill or have to isolate.

"Statutory sick pay rates must be increased significantly – and be available to every worker in the UK,” she said. “That’s the way to reduce infection spread and get the virus on the back foot.”

Alan Lockey, head of the Royal Society of Arts’ future of work programme, said he was disappointed that the government had spurned the chance to help those in the gig economy – including many key workers – who are still not eligible.

“People will be amazed that millions of workers, including thousands of key workers, have been sent to work in a pandemic without being eligible for any statutory sick pay,” said Mr Lockey.

He added: “Nearly every comparable country in the world has introduced an emergency regime to help protect people and reduce transmission, but yet again the government has declined to do likewise. We need a more generous regime that includes the most economically insecure workers and we needed it today.”

In 2019, the government stated that it was “concerned” that employees on lower incomes were missing out on sick pay and said it would consider a recommendation to include those below the lower earnings limit.

But on Tuesday, the government announced that “now is not the right time to introduce changes to the sick pay system”.

A government spokesperson added: “Statutory sick pay is designed to balance support for an individual when they are unable to work because of sickness, with the costs to employers of providing this support.

“As we learn to live with a new virus, it’s right that we take a broader look at the role of statutory sick pay.”

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