There are questions over how the continuing spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus could impact workers in the UK and beyond.
According to reports, four out of five people in the UK could contract the virus, and one in five workers could be absent during the weeks when the virus peaks. There are 115 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK so far and one older person with pre-existing health conditions has died after contracting the virus. 97 cases in the UK are active, according to data, while 18 people have recovered at the time of publishing.
This week at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson announced that workers will be able to get statutory sick pay from their first day off work under emergency coronavirus legislation. Usually, workers would only get the pay from their fourth day off work.
Mr Johnson said that people who self-isolate to help protect other people from contracting the virus should not be “penalised for doing the right thing”. Currently, some people are being asked to self-isolate if they have visited one of the locations with a higher risk of contracting the virus. Many people have so far chosen to self-isolate to reduce the risk of them spreading the virus to others, but concerns had been raised that some workers may be faced with an impossible choice, as they need to be at work in order to pay their bills.
The announcement, while only worth an extra £40 per person, could lead more people to self-isolate, which may help the UK’s effort to contain and delay the spread of the virus.
However, the eligibility criteria for receiving statutory sick pay have not changed. The TUC’s general secretary Frances O’Grady has highlighted that two million workers do not earn enough to qualify. Workers must earn at least £118 a week to be eligible for statutory sick pay, and those who are self-employed, freelancers or are on zero-hour contracts will not be covered.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson suggested that those not eligible for the pay would be “entitled to help through existing systems such as universal credit.” These comments were met with groans from the opposition benches in the House of Commons when announced. It is usually over a month before applicants to Universal Credit can receive any benefits, which may cause serious problems for vulnerable persons and those struggling financially due to staying away from work while they have the Coronavirus.
Jonathan Lilley, employment lawyer at Blaser Mills Law, said that the impact on those who contract the virus and are unable to receive the statutory sick pay could be particularly damaging, with such people being placed in the same position of those who are unable to work for other reasons.
For those that are entitled to receive the statutory sick pay, there could still be some considerable conflict between employees and employers. Some employers could face a higher bill to pay the statutory sick pay for the extra days, which is worth an extra £40. The government is not providing extra funds to employers, but rather asking employers to use their own funds to fund the extra sick pay. For most employers, this may not cause too many concerns, however, it may badly impact small to medium-sized businesses and those businesses which see a large proportion of their workforce self-isolating and not working, if they do not have contingency plans in place. Mr Lilley said;
“The Prime Minister’s decision that workers will be entitled to statutory sick pay from the first day off work, not the fourth, to help contain coronavirus is a crucial development for employers to be aware of. It creates the potential for conflict between employers and employees, as naturally bosses will focus on their own obligations and control over their workforces, and will need to consider the reasons put forward by employees as to why self-isolation is appropriate.
“Employers need to think carefully about a plan for dealing with workforces affected by the virus, develop a clear way of communicating that plan and must strike the right balance between keeping their businesses running, doing enough to contain additional spread and ensuring appropriate ‘homeworking’ arrangements are in place for those who need to isolate themselves away. Clearly, in some sectors, working from home is already commonplace, so anyone able to switch to those arrangements for the isolation period will be able to carry on working and will have no need for sick pay – statutory or otherwise.”
Some schools and workplaces, including in Canary Wharf, have already been evacuated due to concerns over a case of the Coronavirus amongst staff, with staff advised to work from home where possible. Where staff are unable to work from home, there could be significant logistical challenges for businesses, adding to problems caused by the virus’ impact on the economic climate.
It is also key to recognise that there could be disagreements between employees and employers over who is entitled to statutory sick pay. The announcement on Wednesday implied that people should follow health guidelines and advice on self-isolating, however, some employers may refuse to pay statutory sick pay to their employees if they are self-isolating as per advice but not are not actually ill from the virus.
The extent to which workers and businesses will be impacted by the Coronavirus overall is of course largely uncertain, but it would appear that there could be significant challenges ahead that will need facing.