Covid: Rishi Sunak urged by over 50 MPs and peers to increase statutory sick pay

Exclusive: Letter to chancellor warns workers are being forced to ‘choose between putting food on the table and self-isolating’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 22 December 2021 11:40 GMT

Over 50 cross-party MPs and peers have demanded Rishi Sunak urgently increase statutory sick pay, warning the current level forces workers to choose between “putting food on the table and self-isolating”.

In a letter to the chancellor — seen by The Independent — the parliamentarians accused the government of repeatedly failing to “properly” support workers, as the country faces a new wave of Covid.

They stressed that since the onset of the pandemic in 2020 it has been “clear” increasing sick pay levels would “significantly increase” the number of people who can afford to self-isolate after testing positive.

Earlier this week the Labour frontbench also urged Mr Sunak to increase sick pay — currently £96.35 per week and among the least generous schemes in Europe — in order to encourage workers who test positive for Covid to self-isolate.

Speaking to Sky News, Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, added that the “failure to pay people decent sick pay throughout this whole crisis has been a monstrous failing”.

Experts advising the government on a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), have previously suggested the “benefits of financial aid and other support for isolation are magnified”.

The letter sent to the chancellor by MPs on Wednesday urged the government to increase sick pay levels to the level of the Real Living Wage — which the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has previously estimated as £346 per week.

Signatories include the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrat’s welfare spokesperson, Wendy Chamberlain, and the SNP MP Alison Thewliss.

“The new wave of Covid infections is going to lead to many more workers needing to self-isolate,” the letter states.

“It is essential that they are given the proper financial support to do so.It [SSP] is so low that it forces workers to choose between putting food on the table and self-isolating when asked to do so to protecting their community”.

They added: “It has been clear since the very start of this pandemic that increasing statutory sick pay to real living wage levels would significantly increase the number of workers who can afford to self-isolate and would help slow the spread of the virus. Despite that, you and your government have repeatedly failed to act.

“It is unacceptable that workers are being denied the basic protections they should be getting from your Government. In the interests of protecting public health, reducing pressure on our NHS and limiting the impacts on the wider workforce and economy, we need your government to act with the seriousness that this situation demands.

“We ask you to urgently increase statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage and remove the requirement for recipients to earn over £120 per week so that every single worker who needs to self-isolate is properly supported to do so.

Richard Burgon — a former shadow cabinet minister who organised the letter — also claimed that millions are “living in fear that they simply won’t be able to get by on miserly levels of sick pay if they get ill.”

“The chancellor has repeatedly ignored warnings about how our pathetically low level of sick pay means many workers just can’t afford to self-isolate and that this undermines efforts to reduce the spread of the virus,” he added.

It comes after Mr Sunak reintroduced a rebate scheme for firms with fewer than 250 employees, which will cover the cost of of statutory sick pay for Covid-related absences amid concerns over the Omicron variant.

The measure formed part of a £1 billion support package to businesses hit by restrictions and advice given to the public ahead of Christmas. The fund includes one-off grants of up to £6,000 per premises in the business in the affected sectors in England, which the Treasury expects will be administered by local authorities and be available in the coming weeks.

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