Why don’t we just… pay workers to self-isolate?

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Requesting people to self-isolate when they have been in contact with someone with Covid-19 is vital to control the spread of the virus in the UK. But what happens if you are at risk of losing your job or income if you self-isolate?

Sadly, this is the reality for many people in the North West who face being in real financial hardship if they self-isolate for 14 days.

People unable to work from home face the choice of doing the right thing or not being able to pay the bills

Last week I launched a campaign called Time Out to Help Out along with Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool city-region, and Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, calling on the government to make sure workers still get paid when they are requested to self-isolate under the national NHS Test and Trace system. A number of trade unions and businesses have also backed the campaign.

Under the Test and Trace system, 22,000 contacts have been already been identified in Greater Manchester.

But we also know from government figures only 79 per cent of people who tested positive could be reached, while of those reached 20 per cent of people did not give any contacts to Test and Trace.

This means we do not have any contacts identified for 37 per cent of people who tested positive, leaving a significant gap in the numbers of people who should be self-isolating. So why are people not handing over their contacts?

We believe many people who are asked to self-isolate don’t tell their contacts over fears friends and family could lose their jobs or lose out on pay.

For those with office jobs who can work from home self-isolating should not be a problem. But those people unable to work from home face the choice of doing the right thing – or not being able to pay the bills.

Some employees can claim statutory sick pay, but it would cause their income to drop to just £95.85 a week. This is 21 per cent of the median weekly workers in Greater Manchester earn and 22 per cent in the Liverpool city-region.

There are also employees not entitled to statutory sick pay because their incomes are too low. There are at least 90,000 employees in Greater Manchester in this category and 47,000 in Liverpool – most employed as sales workers, in customer services, bar staff, shelf stackers, hospital porters or other roles.

Lastly, there are self-employed people who would not receive an income if they did not turn up to work. Even if they were able to claim Universal Credit it is likely to be much lower than their usual income. There are 186,000 self-employed workers in Greater Manchester and a total of 84,000 in the Liverpool city-region.

And the financial penalty for those self-isolating will become even more apparent, as the furlough scheme is phased out and more people return to work with no support in place.

This is why we are calling for employees to still be paid their full normal wage if they are asked to self-isolate and cannot work from home. The employer would then be able to claim back the payment from the government. And if the worker is receiving statutory sick pay, the employer should be able to claim back the difference between statutory sick pay and their normal wage. Self-employed people who cannot work from home would be able to claim for loss of earnings in the same way jury service works.

Under this process, people can claim for loss of earnings up to a maximum daily amount. You are performing a community service when you sit on a jury. You are also helping your community when you self-isolate – it should be funded in the same way by the government.

It’s right that everybody plays their part in helping to get Covid-19 under control. But what isn’t right is forcing workers, many doing the lowest paid jobs, or the self-employed, to make a choice between self-isolating or a drastic loss of income.

The Time Out to Help Out campaign proposes an alternative system that would ensure workers are paid fairly. NHS Test and Trace will only work if people have the means to self-isolate and are properly supported. The system has to succeed if we want to get the virus under control and save lives.

I would urge everyone to support this campaign – timeouttohelpout.com. 

Andy Burnham is mayor of Greater Manchester

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