Labour should fight for proper sick pay to help get control of the virus

Richard Burgon
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

After an incredibly bleak year, the coronavirus vaccines offer a ray of hope that 2021 can bring a return of something resembling normality. But it will be many months before the vaccines have been distributed widely. Until then, Labour needs to step up its opposition to force the government to adopt a new strategy. We can’t go on with months more of the government’s reckless approach. That has already led to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths and one of the deepest downturns of any major economy.

One figure above all underlines just how deep the government’s recent failures have been. In the three months since September 6th, there have been 19,700 UK Covid deaths. This second wave was caused by the government prematurely telling people to go out and spend, get back to school and to workplaces over the late summer.

Countries that instead followed a suppression strategy – known as zero Covid – have driven the virus and deaths down to very low levels. Their economies are doing better as a result. For example, in the past three months, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia have suffered a combined total of fewer than 400 deaths, despite their total population being four times larger than that of Britain.

Yet the Tory government simply refuses to learn the lessons. By taking its foot off the brake over the coming weeks, its tier system risks a third wave of the virus, while the other core element of its strategy is to rely on mass testing to get us through to a time when vaccines have been widely distributed.

So far its testing system has squandered billions of pounds and failed to reach anywhere near enough of the contacts of those infected. Over 500,000 close contacts have been missed by the system in the last month alone. That’s why Labour has been right to call for Serco and the other failing private contractors to be booted out of the Test and Trace system. The NHS and local public health experts must be put in charge.

But getting testing and tracing right is simply not enough. Test and trace is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It is the first stage in getting infected people and their contacts to isolate. But if people can’t then afford to isolate, then they simply won’t.

This virus thrives on poverty and inequality. Without proper support, many people from disadvantaged groups – who could be the sole breadwinners in their families – may simply avoid these tests for fear of the economic impact of being found to be positive.

Nobody should have to decide whether to protect their health or put food on the table. But our current level of statutory sick pay forces many people to do just that. At just £96 per week, UK statutory sick pay is among the lowest in Europe.

The TUC estimates that it is equal to just one-fifth of the average worker’s weekly earnings. Moreover, nearly two million low-paid workers are entirely excluded from statutory sick pay because they earn less than the £120 a week threshold.

Under pressure, the government has introduced a one-off £500 support grant to some self-isolating. Yet not only is the level of support far too low, only one in eight workers qualify for it. Strict eligibility criteria mean that more than half of people applying for it are rejected in some coronavirus hotspots. Some local councils are reported to be turning people away because the government’s funding is on the verge of being exhausted.

The TUC is calling for statutory sick pay to be increased to real living wage levels and for the removal of the requirement that recipients earn over £120 per week. This demand should be at the heart of Labour’s response to Covid.

Last week I voted against the government’s measures both because they risk a deadly third wave and because they fail to give people the economic support needed. It would have been better to use the weeks to Christmas to extend the lockdown to get the virus down to much more manageable levels. That would give Test and Trace a fighting chance of succeeding.

I was especially disappointed during that vote that our party didn’t use its parliamentary weight to try to force concessions on sick pay. Had Labour threatened to vote against the package without proper sick pay, it could have won both public support and important extra support for those who need to isolate. Bold opposition to the government’s failing coronavirus strategy is certainly in the national interest – and the demand for proper sick pay should be at the core of our opposition over the coming months.

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