When Maayan Madar decided to go on holiday with his family to France, he did not expect to lose out on two weeks’ pay when he returned. The London-based care worker, who is paid the minimum wage on a zero-hours contract for an agency he does not wish to name, was looking forward to a break after a tough few months caring for clients at their homes amid the threat of coronavirus.
Having left for his trip on 5 August, he only discovered three days before his flight home on Saturday 15 August that he would have to self-isolate for two weeks upon his return. Late in the evening of Thursday 13 August, the UK government announced that all travellers from France arriving in the UK from 4am on the Saturday would need to quarantine and the Foreign Office changed its France travel advice to “only essential travel”.
Madar, one of approximately 400,000 visitors from Britain caught out by the sudden rule change, contacted his employer to explain he wouldn’t be working for two weeks from the Monday of his return. He asked how much sick pay he would receive over the workless period. Nothing, it turned out.
Government rules state: “You cannot get SSP [statutory sick pay] if you’re self-isolating after entering or returning to the UK and do not need to self-isolate for any other reason.”
This lack of statutory sick pay for unsuspecting holidaymakers first came to light when 1.5m Britons visiting Spain were affected by the surprise quarantine news in late July – and returned to two weeks of zero income, if their employers did provide their own compensation.
Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds accused the government of an “abdication of responsibility”; in an interview with the Mirror, the work and pensions select committee chair Stephen Timms called the policy “a gap in the system which is likely to undermine its effectiveness”, and acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey warned people would be “choosing between quarantining or putting food on the table”.
The government’s response at the time was to encourage employers to be flexible in accommodating their staff having to quarantine, and advise employees to either claim Universal Credit or Employment and Support Allowance. This seems to overlook the five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment, and if individuals meet the eligibility criteria for Employment and Support Allowance then they’re likely to be eligible for statutory sick pay.
A spokesman for Boris Johnson also suggested employees could contact Acas, the service for workplace dispute settlements, according to the Guardian.
It is currently at the employer’s discretion whether they pay their own sick pay to self-isolating workers who have had to quarantine from abroad at short notice. Workers such as Madar, however, cannot rely on the goodwill of their employers. This particularly applies to workers, like him, who are on casual contracts, work for agencies and do not receive much in the way of workplace benefits at the best of times.
“No one in my agency thought for a second ‘OK, the government won’t pay you, but maybe we can actually give one of our carers whose work we’ve been so thankful for over the pandemic £180 for those two weeks’,” says Madar. “I’m kind of sick of all these ‘thank yous’.”
A counter-argument, vocalised by some business owners (most colourfully, Pimlico Plumbers’ Charlie Mullins from his villa in Marbella) is that workers know foreign travel in the pandemic cannot be risk-free. “People are not sick – they’ve gone on holiday and they know what the circumstances are,” he told Good Morning Britain on 14 August.
Yet this ignores the difficulty of securing refunds for many people who had pre-booked holidays, as well as the inequality between those who can work from home and those who cannot.
“If you can work from home, obviously there’s no issue, but the people who can’t are probably mostly essential workers, right?” asks Madar. “A big percentage of the people who can’t work from home are the essential people you clap your hands for, people the government says ‘oh, thank you, thank you’ to.”
In any case, statutory sick pay is too low to live on in the UK, at just £95.85 per week. Early on in the pandemic, the New Statesman revealed that such paltry compensation was not enough of an incentive for some low-paid workers to stop working and stay at home when required to self-isolate. This is even more the case when nothing is paid at all.
“I decided to self-isolate when I returned from France, but my housemates did not want to self-isolate with me if it meant losing out on money,” says Eric*, 25, a PhD student and graduate teacher in Manchester who lives with two housemates.
All are young academics and had recently been on strike for fairer pay, and were concerned about the financial hit of quarantining for two weeks.
“The government obviously doesn’t really realise that millennials live in shared houses,” he says. “It’s absolutely shocking, and such an insult… it needs to provide support for people, particularly younger people, who are in more precarious jobs: millennials and Gen Z whose working conditions aren’t secure, and there’s no protection for them.
“If you decide to go on holiday and come back and it’s all ‘I had a great time guys, here’s a postcard, here’s a present, by the way, you’re not going to make any money for two weeks’ – it’s complicated,” he says. “£96 is nothing, if your rent is £6/7/800 a month, you’re in serious trouble. And then what do you want people to do? They have to work because they have to survive. It’s as simple as that!”
“Nobody should have to suffer hardship because of sudden decisions taken by government,” says Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “Employers should continue to pay affected workers wherever possible. But we also need the government to extend statutory sick pay to workers required to quarantine… [Ministers] must make sure that workers don’t face an impossible choice between ignoring advice and not being able to pay their bills.”
Statutory sick pay equates to a third of minimum wage workers’ usual weekly pay, calculates Lola McEvoy a GMB union organiser for the NHS. She warns that while such a rate may reduce employers’ sickness bills, “it absolutely does not reduce sickness, or the spread of infectious disease”.
“Our hospital cleaners, porters and social care workers can barely make ends meet as it is,” she says. “If they’ve managed to save up for a holiday, the government should absolutely ensure they can afford to self-isolate on their return. At best, making our key workers choose between cancelling their holiday or losing 70 per cent of their pay is out of touch – at worst, it puts more lives at risk.”
A government spokesperson said: “We urge employers to show flexibility to employees who will have to self-isolate due to the changes to quarantine rules. Employees should be supported to follow the rules around self-isolation.
“People who are self-isolating are able to claim Universal Credit and advances are available to help people get money quickly. They may also be eligible to claim ESA, and those who are self-isolating on government advice are entitled from the first day of their claim.”
The government’s position is that no travel is risk-free, and anyone planning to travel abroad should only do so in the knowledge that they may have to self-isolate when they get back – so they should make arrangements with their work beforehand. Government advice for international travel is also described as under constant review.
At present, the policy remains that individuals are only eligible for statutory sick pay when they are unable to work because they’re ill, self-isolating because someone in their household has coronavirus symptoms, or self-isolating because they’ve been notified to do so by the track and trace system.
“I think it’s outrageous,” says Madar. “These are the small things they should think about – it’s not much money, but it’s something that would make you feel OK, like someone still thinks of you.”
*This name has been changed.