Combat Coronavirus by tackling inequality

Posted on: 4th March 2020


If the Government really “will stop at nothing” to combat Coronavirus then it must immediately grant low paid workers the sickness protection rights they’ve steadfastly denied them.

The Conservatives’ cheerleaders in the right-wing press say Ministers have promised to “stop at nothing” to avert a COVID-19 epidemic. But those same Ministers seem to be unaware that their own mean-spirited policies will only encourage the millions of workers struggling in the so-called “gig economy” to carry on working when they should be self-isolating. [The “Gig economy’ is characterised by zero hours, fake-self-employment, temporary work and low pay]. And the spitefulness behind the Conservatives’ “bedroom tax” needs to be reversed too.

To combat the risk of a COVID-19 epidemic Ministers will have to reverse previous Conservative Party commitments. There are two examples:

SSP Minimum earnings threshold

First, Conservatives consistently opposed decent employment rights for low paid workers. Yet it’s those very people – especially cleaners and care workers in our NHS, health and care sector – who we need now more than ever. But many don’t get sick pay for their first days off work and so will feel pressurised to work even when unwell. Bad news for disease containment. And especially for patients, care home residents and others who are most at risk.

Under existing rules over 2 million workers including 1 in 10 working women don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay (SSP). But it’s not just the care sector. Many other low paid workers who find themselves in similar circumstances work in catering and other establishments where they interface with hundreds of customers every day. The risks in those sectors are no less significant.

Even for those who are eligible, the payment is still too low at just £94.25 a week. So working people now face a crisis: either they risk going without pay for a prolonged period, or they go into work while ill against government advice. By doing so they could be putting their own, their colleagues and their families lives at risk. That would worsen, not limit, the risk of infection.

Bedroom tax and self-isolation

Second, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer rightly advises that a primary tool to combat progression of the disease is that of “self-isolation”. But, the Conservatives’ infamous “bedroom tax” and weak protections for private tenants (matters I strongly opposed) leave some of the poorest least able to self-isolate if they’re suspected to have succumbed to the virus. Though this can’t be turned around overnight, the Government should reflect on the impact of this inequality as it takes policy forward.

So if the Conservatives really want to “stop at nothing” they could tackle inequality as well as help halt the spread of this epidemic by scrapping the minimum earnings threshold of SSP and improve equality in decent housing.


POSTSCRIPT: Since posting this, PM Johnson announced this afternoon that the Government would extend statutory sick pay (SSP) to cover workers from day one rather than day 4. Which is of course good. But it doesn’t really deal with low paid workers, self employed, zero-hours workers etc who are not entitled to any SSP. I’m not sure he fully understood the point.


Further information from the TUC:


Currently, you to have been off work sick for 4 or more days in a row to receive SSP.

But if you earn less than £118 a week, you don’t qualify.

This means 2 million workers are excluded and face going without any income whatsoever if they have to take time off.

Which workers are least likely to get SSP?

Women workers are over-represented in the low-income wage bracket.

1 in 10 women are paid below the threshold and would therefore be denied sick pay if struck by the virus.

Certain workplaces will also be at a greater risk.

Those who work for the public, such as transport workers, those in public services like education and health, and the service sector.

The 23 per cent of zero-hours workers who don’t earn enough to get SSP also face the prospect of losing out.

And if they are too unwell to work a shift, or cannot work remotely during isolation, they have no right to SSP regardless of their salary.

Know your rights: consult your rep

As well as calling for action on pay at a national level, trade unions on the ground have an important role to play.

Working with employers, we can ensure that the effects of a pandemic are minimised and keep the workforce well-informed.

Union reps can support workers not to come in to work if they feel ill or are at risk of infection.

They can help resist presenteeism or pressure from bosses, as well as any moves by employers to make staff take annual or unpaid leave.

There’s a lot more union reps can reasonably demand, including:

  • Payment of sick pay for self-isolation, ill-health or medical appointments – with SSP as a minimum, or any contractual sick pay which may be at a higher rate.
  • Consultation with unions, health and safety reps and committees in the drawing up of any relevant policies on COVID-19 response.
  • The provision of hand sanitisers and for employers to maintain high levels of cleanliness in the workplace.
  • The cancellation of any requests for workers to travel to locations the government has warned against visiting. Check the guidance for an up-to-date list of affected areas.
  • Provision of ongoing information and advice from Public Health England to all employees.

For further information, check out the World Health Organisation page Getting your workplace ready for COVID-19.