It should be impossible to be shocked by anything in 2020, let alone the latest example of ministerial chutzpah tossed on to a Mount Everest of Tory shamelessness. Yet this week Matt Hancock, secretary of state for health and car crash interviews, pondered: “Why in Britain do we think it’s acceptable to soldier on and go into work if you have flu symptoms or a runny nose, thus making your colleagues ill?” He went on, blaming those who believe that “as long as you can get out of bed you should get into work”.
Truly, here is a mystery for Hercule Poirot: rather than being driven by a “work till you drop” culture, could the propensity of many British workers to toil when ill actually have something to do with their country being an outlier in another regard – namely, in its derisory level of sick pay? Britons stricken with coronavirus have the lowest mandatory sick pay of the OECD industrialised nations as a proportion of average earnings. It’s not workaholism dragging the ill to their offices and factory floors: it is the basic and inescapable need to pay bills and feed the children.
Consider Hannah, who is paid £9.30 an hour to work in a nursing home stricken with Covid-19. “If I catch it and have to isolate, I won’t even be able to make rent, never mind all of the other bills that I would be expected to pay,” she tells me. Hannah is one of the millions of key workers who were applauded from windows, balconies and front doors by members of the public and Tory ministers alike. “Applauding us was a lovely gesture,” she tells me. “It showed solidarity among the people of our country and gave a morale boost, but unfortunately praise doesn’t pay the bills.”
Consider Sarah too: she’s a care worker in a private residential home. This is the coronavirus frontline, with about one in eight care home residents succumbing to the virus by June. She gets no sick pay from her employers. “We have had a number of staff test positive for Covid,” she tells me. “We also have staff carrying on working who are high risk, as they can’t afford not to. I feel like we’re forgotten about.”
How, then, does she feel about Hancock’s bafflement at those who take their viral load to the workplace? “I thought, ‘How dare he?’ It shows how totally out of touch he is with those of us living payday to payday, who don’t have the basic rights many take for granted, like paid sick leave.”
If there is a culture worth interrogating, it is of workplaces where bosses have the whip hand and workers lack rights. Christopher is a registered nurse who works in the NHS staff bank system, essentially meaning a zero-hours contract. With hospitals always short-staffed, he works the equivalent of full-time hours, but is not entitled to anything other than statutory sick pay if unwell. If he calls his line managers to say he is unwell, they simply cancel his shift. “If I don’t go to work I don’t get paid, so in normal times I need to be pretty unwell not to go in,” he tells me. “Also, when we call in sick we are often … made to feel very guilty about it, so again, unless you’re very unwell the pressure is on you to come in anyway.” Once, he vomited at work, but his line manager told him that if he went home “you’ll be leaving us very short”.
These stories never end. Joanna, a social worker with blood cancer, took two months off this year for therapeutic radiotherapy: with her sick pay depleted, she dreads weeks of radiotherapy or chemotherapy that could mean months off. Dave, an emergency medical dispatcher in the ambulance service on a temporary contract, was sent home with a cough and lost three days of pay, ineligible as he was for statutory sick pay. Monique, a preschool assistant, had to isolate with Covid symptoms and lost a week’s wages.
Britain has the worst Covid death toll in Europe, in large part because our government locked down too late, and reopened the economy with a disastrously malfunctioning test and trace system. But the fact so many British workers cannot afford to self-isolate is yet another toxic ingredient in a fatal brew. As the Trades Union Congress points out, 2 million workers don’t qualify for statutory sick pay, including more than a third of workers on zero-hours contracts, one in 10 female workers, and over a fifth of the youngest workers.
A rational government would abolish the earnings threshold for statutory sick pay, strip away the waiting period so it is available on day one, increase the sum to the equivalent of the real living wage, and create an emergency fund to assist employers. If these measures had been in place from day one, workers would have been spared hardship – and lives would have been saved.
Should we be optimistic? Surely the lessons of the pandemic must now be implemented; surely our venerated key workers must now be given the support they deserve. Alas, we have the cautionary tale of the financial crash: at the time it felt inevitable that this would lead to the permanent discrediting of free market dogma, and a new economic paradigm. Instead, the fortunes of the richest 1,000 families in Britain doubled, while the pockets of public sector workers and disabled people were emptied.
The narrative shifted at lightning speed – rightwing politicians directed the nation’s fury at the hated “scrounger”, not the financial elite and the Labour party failed to hit back. There is every chance this tawdry chapter in history will repeat itself: already we have a public sector pay freeze and a cut to our international aid obligation. So if workers are to secure the sick pay they desperately need, for not just their own security but for the health of the nation, it will have to be fought for.
Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities