There is growing noise in the labour movement and more widely around the issue of sick pay. We urgently need a bigger campaign on this issue.
Despite right-wing agitation about people flouting lockdown regulations, the evidence suggests something like 90% general compliance (British Medical Journal).
But much lower numbers of those infected or in contact with the infected are self-isolating fully: more like 20%. Unlike hand-washing and social distancing, self-isolation often requires material resources and support, particularly sufficient space and an income.
Data from the first lockdown suggested that the worst-off were six times more likely than the most affluent to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate, despite having the same personal motivation to do so.
In November even the Tory peer Dido Harding, head of the NHS Test and Trace programme, admitted that the lack of material and financial support for those who need to self-isolate is decisive.
We need provision of quarantine accommodation for those who cannot self-isolate effectively at home, and strengthening and expansion of the furlough and self-employed support schemes.
But sick or isolation pay is key. At £95.85 UK Statutory Sick Pay is the least generous in the EU, apart from Malta’s. It covers only 20% on average of workers’ income. The level is 50% or more in all but three of 27 EU countries; 70% in Germany, Croatia and the Netherlands; 80% in Denmark, Bulgaria and Poland; and 100% in Luxemburg.
A fifth of UK workers get no sick pay at all, not even at the measly SSP level. That includes the really or notionally self-employed, zero-hours workers, and those who earn less than £120 a week. The percentage is higher in some crucial sectors, including social care.
Even the US introduced emergency legislation to grant 20 million extra workers two weeks’ leave on full pay for self-isolation — a measure epidemiologists estimate has prevented at least 600,000 infections.
The government knows this, but has failed to act more than minimally. The Labour leadership’s silence, broken by only occasional vague and low-profile nods towards the issue, has helped the Tories get away with it.
Even relatively clear, sustained commentary and proposals from Labour would probably make a difference. Campaigning certainly would.
We need stepped-up organising both to push Labour into action and to push the issue — in politics and in workplaces — where Starmer and co. won’t.
The Safe and Equal campaign has been organising around sick pay since March. More recently others on the Labour left, mainly the Don’t Leave, Organise group and Leeds East MP Richard Burgon, have taken it up. Another Europe is Possible has launched a call to level up sick pay at least to the European average.
Some unions, notably PCS and United Voice of the World, have agitated around sick pay. Battles have been won in some workplaces, for instance by PCS and UVW in the civil service and by RMT cleaners on London Underground. Unison in the North-West won a big expansion of isolation pay in care homes in that region. The TUC has now called for SSP to be expanded to all workers and raised from £95.85 to £320 a week.
Labour movement activists and everyone who wants to see progress on this should link up with Safe and Equal, and raise the issue in their union branches and local Labour Parties. Even better, the more we can coordinate the organisations and activists organising around sick pay into a united force.