The Covid inquiry must take an unflinching look at how the UK’s lack of decent sick pay left the country “brutally exposed” during the pandemic, the TUC has said.
The UK entered the pandemic with the lowest rate of statutory sick pay (SSP) in the OECD, an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member countries, and with millions unable access it, the union body claimed.
This “broken sick pay system” massively undermined the country’s preparedness and ability to deal with the pandemic, and resulted in millions facing a huge financial cliff edge if they contracted Covid, it added.
The inquiry will take witness evidence from Tuesday 13 June.
Nearly a quarter (23%) of the UK workforce had to rely on SSP if they needed to self-isolate, rising to 31% for the lowest paid. At just £94 a week – the average worker faced a £418 drop in earnings if they had to self-isolate on SSP, the TUC said.
In 2019 sick pay was worth 18% of average earnings – compared with 34% when it was first introduced in 1983.
The Conservatives scrapped reforms that would have extended SSP to nearly 2 million low-paid workers who did not qualify for it, which left the most financially insecure with no form of safety net.
The TUC general secretary, Paul Nowak, said: “The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic. Many workers simply couldn’t afford to self-isolate. This pushed up infection rates, put a huge strain on our public services and ballooned the cost of test and trace.
“The government could have boosted sick pay and made sure everyone could get it. But ministers chose not to. As a result the UK entered the pandemic with the most miserly rate of sick pay in the OECD. This cost us dear.”
He added: “It is vital that we learn the lessons of what went wrong – and where government austerity policies left us ill-prepared for a pandemic.”
The TUC claims it led to far-reaching consequences in sectors such as social care, where a low-paid and insecure workforce felt a compulsion to attend work, and the inability to self-isolate helped push up cases of long Covid – a condition 2 million are living with today.
The government belatedly introduced a self-isolation support scheme that allowed people to claim a £500 lump sum if they were unable to work but it was “beset with problems” and “poorly promoted”, with freedom of information requests revealing six in 10 applicants were rejected, the TUC said.
A government spokesperson said the Covid inquiry would look at sick pay as outlined in its terms of reference.