On 20th September the government announced a new scheme aimed to support low paid workers to self-isolate. The scheme itself is wholly inadequate but it is the third and most high profile admission by government that low wage, insecure work and the miserly Statutory Sick Pay scheme are major obstacles to controlling the spread of Coronavirus.

From the 28th September, some workers will be eligible for £500 for two weeks isolation but only if you meet the government’s four criteria:

  • You must be receiving Universal Credit, Working Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit and/or Pension Credit
  • You must be employed or self-employed
  • You must be unable to work from home and will lose income as a result
  • You must have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace

The government claim this will help out 4 million workers. But the scheme is full of flaws. 

Firstly, it does not offer any support for low waged workers who have Coronavirus symptoms or those who are living with people with symptoms. It only covers people who have been told to isolate by Test and Trace. If workers are coughing or have a fever then they still face an impossible situation: isolate on £95.85 a week SSP or continue to work potentially infecting others. 

The government has identified three categories of people who are likely to infect others: those with symptoms, those living with those with symptoms and those identified by Test and Trace. Of these three categories, the people identified by Test and Trace are the least likely to be infected. These are people who shared an indoor space with someone who later tested positive. Some infection is spread in this way but many scientific papers have been written showing that you are most likely to be infected by someone in your own household. If Test and Trace is effective it will help efforts to slow the rate of infection but at best this is only topping-up the main means of limiting the spread: isolation for those with symptoms and members of their household. The new scheme releases some of the financial pressure of isolation from the least risky, but does nothing to alleviate the financial pressure to ignore isolation rules on the people most likely to infect others.   

Unless you have occupational sick pay, the financial penalties of isolating when someone in your household has symptoms are greater than the penalties of isolating under instruction from Test and Trace (even without the new £500 scheme). If you have to isolate because of Test and Trace, other members of your household can continue to go to work as normal bringing in an income. If you have to isolate because someone in your household has symptoms, this means a whole household should isolate potentially losing several incomes. This not only means that many workers will continue to work when they should be isolating, but also that many will avoid getting a test.

Government figures suggest 12 million workers do not receive occupational sick pay and will only receive SSP if they have to isolate. Only the worst paid 4 million – those that have their incomes topped up by social security payments – will qualify for this scheme. The other 8 million will still have to take a massive financial hit if they are told to isolate by Test and Trace meaning many will take measures to avoid being traced. Furthermore, many of the 4 million workers who qualify will be employed part-time and may well earn more with this £500 isolation payment than they would have done for two weeks work. In contrast, a low waged full time worker who does not qualify for social security payments would suffer much more financial hardship if they have to isolate on SSP. This scheme does not  help those with most to lose from isolation.

For example, a family of two adult minimum wage workers with no occupational sick pay entitlement could lose nearly £800 of income if one of their children developed symptoms of Coronavirus and they had to isolate for two weeks on SSP. The family next door might have one adult in full time work and another working 5 hours a week topping up their income with housing benefit. If the part time worker gets told to isolate by Test and Trace this household could have an extra £400+ for the two weeks of isolation. Statistically it is more likely that the adults in the first household are infected with Coronavirus.

Because the scheme is only for those workers who claim benefits, it will not help over a million workers who have no recourse to public funds status.

In addition to these problems, the scheme is very bureaucratic. Workers are entitled to this money from 28th September but the schemes, run by cash strapped local authorities, will not be up and running until 12th October. Councils have been told to back pay workers who make claims into this scheme but that could leave many workers with financial difficulties while they wait for the payments to come through. The payment is not automatic and workers need to apply for the money and provide all sorts of documentation.

According to the government’s own estimates, over 80% of people who should be isolating are not. Over 80%! The majority of this non-compliance must be due to severe financial pressure driving people to work because they cannot afford to get by on SSP or risk losing insecure work by taking time off. 

Alongside this inadequate £500 scheme, the government has also said they will fine people £1000-£10,000 if they do not isolate when they should. However, there is no easy way to police who should and who should not isolate at any given time: most people who should be isolating will be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. If the government were serious about issuing these £1000 fines they would need a level of state surveillance significantly beyond anything that exists in the UK. There is no indication this is what they are planning and in any case, they would mostly be targeting people who could not afford to pay the fines!

Other European countries do not have this problem and do not have our death rates. This is in part because all other European countries have generous state run sick pay schemes, many of which pay full wages for periods of sickness. These were extended during the pandemic to include payment of normal wages for periods of isolation. When our European neighbours get symptoms they can stay at home without having to worry about eviction, paying the bills and putting food on the table. The UK’s SSP is the worst in the developed world by a long way. This latest gimmick does little to address the problem, but it is an admission by government that there is a problem. They have been forced to make this concession by workers’ campaigns. By campaigning at work and in our communities we can win much more: a levelling up for those 12 million workers to the same rights to sick and isolation pay as exist for many unionised workers.

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