This campaign was initiated by mental health workers in East London on 16th March, just days into the first government advice on self-isolation. We realised that working alongside us in our hospitals and clinics were workers without ordinary rights to full paid leave. If they developed symptoms of Coronavirus, or if a member of their household developed symptoms, then they would face an impossible choice: either self-isolate and face rapid and severe financial hardship or continue to work potentially spreading this deadly virus. We sought assurances that all workers working alongside us during the lockdown would be entitled to full paid leave to comply with public health advice and argued this measure was essential for infection control, and the health and safety of staff and patients.
In the days and weeks that followed we discovered that not only our own employer, but NHS England had policy to ensure all workers operating in NHS premises had the right to self-isolate on full pay. On 20th March we published the NHS England letter that contained this instruction, previously only available on the deep web. On 26th March Unison publicised this policy on their website.
On 27th March, Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), NHS England and NHS Improvement, Public Health England (PHE), Health Education England and NHS Employers put out a joint statement making the explicit link between workers rights and infection control: “It is essential for infection control purposes that staff members who are told to self-isolate, do so as quickly as possible…[S]taff should receive full pay whilst in self-isolation. This includes bank staff and sub-contractors, who have to be physically present at an NHS facility to carry out their duties.”
Management have been outsourcing and privatising cleaning, catering, portering and many other essential jobs in the NHS for decades. The private firms have made their profits by eroding workers’ terms and conditions and driving down pay. NHS management have ignored the arguments made by trade unions that degrading workers’ rights makes the NHS less safe for patients. The scramble at the beginning of March to ensure all outsourced workers received paid sick and isolation pay was an admission of their gross failure to protect patient safety. Coronavirus is not the first infectious disease and will not be the last. All workers need rights to paid sick leave to keep our workplaces safe, especially those workplaces that care for the sick and vulnerable.
NHS workers are continuing to press for this policy to be more widely known and campaigning to ensure that it is being implemented in all NHS workplaces. But if the policy is “essential” in the NHS then it is essential for all workers who are working through this pandemic. It is with this goal that we have linked up with supermarket workers, care workers, transport workers and others to launch Safe and Equal: Full sick and self-isolation pay for all.
The pandemic shows that the safety of everyone depends on us reversing decades of privatisation and outsourcing and have a massive levelling up so that all workers enjoy basic rights to paid leave, guaranteed hours, trade union recognition and decent pay.