The government’s furlough scheme should be extended to help support employees who need to self-isolate but might choose not to because of the financial burden it poses, a report has said.
The research, published by think tank the Resolution Foundation, has warned that being asked to self-isolate because they may have been exposed to coronavirus can pose a serious financial risk to some workers, which means they may refuse to stay away from work.
It added that the current levels of statutory sick pay (SSP) – which is worth £96 a week – is “woefully inadequate”, and that the minimum earnings threshold of £120 a week excludes too many people. The charity estimated some two million employees earn below this – including one in four part-time workers, and one in seven workers in retail, hospitality and leisure – leaving them with no income at all if they self-isolate at home.
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Maja Gustafsson, researcher at the Resolution Foundation and co-author of the report, said asking people to self-isolate was “one of the important tools” the country has for combatting the outbreak. But, she said: “Asking workers to do that often involves a major financial sacrifice – and the UK’s sick pay regime has been woefully inadequate in providing the necessary support. Many more Covid infections will have taken place as a result.”
Gustafsson added that, although a vaccination programme had started, it would take months for it to fully roll out, meaning more workers will be asked to self-isolate in the months to come.
“Given the failure of the current sick pay regime, the government must turn now to the far more successful job support schemes to provide workers and firms with the financial support they need to do the right thing,” she said.
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The research found that while the government had acknowledged the limitations of SSP by introducing test and trace support payments – one-off payments of £500 for low earners in England and Wales asked by NHS Test and Trace to isolate – the money hadn’t reached enough people, and that just one in eight workers were entitled to receive this benefit.
The report concluded by urging the government to extend the furlough scheme to include self-isolation payments for employees; to offer self-employed workers who need to self-isolate for up to 10 days grants of up to £830 using the self-employment income support scheme; and, for those ineligible, to receive an enhanced employment support allowance of £96 per week.
Alan Price, CEO of BrightHR, backed calls for workers told to self-isolate to be given more support. Employers as well as the government have “a moral duty to support employees in complying with the rules”, he said.
Price added that while there is no lawful requirement to provide contractual sick pay, and doing so may be hard for businesses in this current climate, “additional pay can be a great way to retain staff, demonstrating that the company will go the extra mile to help them in difficult situations if it can”.
“Providing additional financial support to those self-isolating can serve as an incentive to encourage them to follow the rules, and also encourage the continued loyalty of staff,” he said.
The Resolution Foundation said while its proposed measures would help to get Covid infections down, the failure of the UK’s SSP regime should not be forgotten once the pandemic has passed and called for permanent reforms to both its eligibility, generosity and operation.