According to emails at the start of 2021 between civil servants seen by Politico, the department instructed government officials not to publicise how furlough could be used to access payments during the isolation period.
Supporting people – particularly those in low-paid jobs – has been a major point of contention during the crisis, with scientists and opposition MPs repeatedly criticising the amount of financial support on offer for those required to self-isolate.
Under government rules, people who test positive for Covid-19 or are notified by Test and Trace after coming into close contact with a positive case, must self-isolate at home or face the prospect of a fine.
Ministers have advertised the ability of employees to access Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – one of the lowest rates in Europe – while a one-off £500 payment is also available for people on low incomes who are forced to self-isolate.
But Politico reported the little-known provision in the Treasury’s Job Retention Scheme allows for employers to temporarily furlough staff who are isolating to access sick pay. Under the scheme announced at the onset of the pandemic, employees can receive 80 per cent of their wages.
It was added a senior official protested that the department was blocking guidance that would have explained to employers and employees how to access money.
“Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation, but HMT are reluctant to say this explicitly in the guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be,” the official said. “Incentive payments are too low to incentivise employees to take tests due to risk of loss of income.”
Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Bridget Phillipson, said the revelations were “shocking”, adding: “The government were advised time and time again how crucial a proper self-isolation system is for curbing the spread of infection, and protecting people’s lives and livelihoods.
“It is shameful and reckless that the chancellor ignored professional advice and put countless people and workplaces at unnecessary risk when he had the opportunity to help”.
Advice currently available on the government’s website states that people on sick leave or are self-isolating because of Covid-19 “may want to speak to [their] employer about whether you are eligible for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough)”.
“You may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) while you are on sick leave or self-isolating,” it says. “If you are put on furlough while on sick leave or self-isolating, you will no longer get sick pay but should be treated as any other furloughed employee.”
The current eligibility criteria for using the scheme includes those at the highest risk of severe illness from Covid-19 and unable to work from home, alongside those unable to work, including from home, “due to caring responsibilities arising from coronavirus”.
Speaking on Thursday, professor Stephen Reicher, a member of the Spi-B group of behavioural scientists advising ministers, said sick pay in the UK was, apart from the United States, “virtually the worst in the world” and that “only about 50 per cent of people are self-isolating”.
“It’s not only about payment, it’s also about other forms of support,” he told LBC.
A Treasury spokesperson said: “It has always been clear that the purpose of the furlough scheme is to support jobs – we’ve been upfront about that from the start.
“The guidance sets out that the scheme is not intended for short-term absences from work due to sickness or self-isolation. We have a specific support package in place for those self-isolating due to coronavirus, including £500 one off payments for those on low incomes.
“If an employer wants to furlough an employee for business reasons and they are currently off sick then they are eligible to do so as with other employees. This has been set out in guidance since April last year.”
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