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22 February 2022

Cutting Covid support is a betrayal of the working class

Low-income workers have been given a bleak choice by the government: attend work while sick or risk falling into financial hardship.

By James Bloodworth

In a few weeks’ time it will be two years since Covid-19 first arrived in the UK. Two whole years. Many of us scoffed at predictions of a “new normal” in the initial weeks of the pandemic. The virus was merely an annoying – albeit traumatic – interregnum, a blip before life returned to its familiar ways, at least for those of us who emerged unscathed from our own brushes with SARS-CoV-2. And then the pandemic went on, and on, and on – for months and then years, until it become increasingly difficult to envisage a life beyond it.

Getting back to normal – or at least to something resembling the old normal – is something I’ve longed for since the very beginning of the pandemic. This is a psychological feeling as much as anything else. I simply don’t want to think about Covid anymore. And I’ve noticed recently that I have stopped thinking about it. Perhaps because when I did catch Covid I got off very lightly: I’m lucky enough to be able to forget about it.  

So I understand why the popular mood is shifting away from the neurotic killjoys who have for so long dominated social media, loudly demanding the permanent closure of bars and nightclubs (along with pretty much anything else that caters to more than just the basic physiological needs). Now, against the backdrop of a mass vaccine roll-out and milder variants, public sentiment is moving in the opposite direction – towards “living with Covid”, which also happens to be the name of the government’s newly announced plan to drop all of the remaining Covid restrictions.

Putting the virus itself to the back of one’s mind is one thing. But a different kind of forgetting – a form of historical amnesia if you like – characterises the government’s plan to return to normal. Rather than learning the lessons of the pandemic, it instead wishes to forget everything that happened in the past two years.

How else do you explain the decision to roll back immediate statutory sick pay (SSP) from 24 March for those who fall ill with Covid? The change in the rules will mean that those in England who are taken ill with the virus will only be able to claim sick pay from day four of being off work. The government has also cut the £500 self-isolation support payment.

Sick pay in the UK is already among the lowest in Europe. Employees and agency workers are entitled to £96.35 a week in SSP. This is equivalent to around 15 per cent of the average wage, and workers receive it for up to 28 weeks – though only people earning £120 a week or more qualify for this amount, meaning two million low-paid workers are excluded altogether. Contrast this with countries such as Germany and Norway, where workers are entitled to sickness benefits equivalent to their average earnings, at least in the first two weeks.

Cutting sick pay for those isolating with Covid will have one very obvious outcome: more workers will be unable to stay at home and self-isolate if they test positive for Covid – which will no longer be a legal requirement from 24 February. With skyrocketing energy bills and rising inflation, they simply won’t be able to afford to. Nor will they be able necessarily to find out if they have Covid: the government is scrapping free tests for front-line workers at a time when the cost of living is rising precipitously.

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The government is axing mandatory self-isolation on 24 February as well, and thus is probably not expecting most workers to isolate after that – though it is still advising people to quarantine if they test positive. Living with Covid will, for many people, mean going to work with Covid. Which is fine if you get it very mildly and don’t cross paths with someone unfortunate enough to have a compromised immune system. But neither of those things are guaranteed.

One can speculate as to why the government has taken the axe to sick pay as it seeks a return to normality. The demands don’t seem to be coming from employers: a recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 62 per cent of employers support a rise in UK statutory sick pay. Workers turning up sick to work and infecting others is hardly good for productivity.

Saving money is the most obvious reason for the move – though frugality didn’t seem high on the government’s list of concerns when it was paying out an estimated £1.3m a day to test-and-trace consultants as recently as October.

Such expenditures seem to be treated differently based on the ideological assumption that the well-off will only work if you give them money, whereas ordinary people will only do so if you take it away. It is for this reason that sections of the right-wing media have spent months lambasting workers about not returning to the office. Boris Johnson is pictured hosting a drink-soaked party during lockdown and can call this “work”. Meanwhile, office workers performing their tasks at home are automatically assumed to be sitting around skiving in their pyjamas.

There was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic when it felt as if double standards like this might finally be melting away. As we stood on our doorsteps and clapped for healthcare workers during the spring and summer of 2020, the working class regained some of its old esteem. It was, after all, the NHS and other front-line workers – rather than, say, financiers in the City of London – who got the country through its most profound crisis since the Second World War.

Such sacrifices extended well beyond the public sector. While the middle classes hunkered down during the lockdowns, delivery workers fanned out across empty streets to bring them stuff. While Amazon allowed its white-collar employees to work remotely, it deemed warehouse workers “essential to the business” and exposed them to greater risk. The burden of the pandemic was most definitely not distributed equally. As the Guardian columnist John Harris wrote in March of 2020, the “realities of this crisis have punctured the divisive myth of strivers and shirkers”.

But any feeling of cross-class solidarity didn’t last long. Low-income workers have this week been given a bleak choice by the government: attend work while sick or risk falling into financial hardship. In slashing sick pay for those self-isolating with Covid, the government is reneging on its pledge to “build back better”. After the Second World War, a Labour government sought to build a “land fit for heroes”. We can expect no such thing under Boris Johnson’s government. Judging by this week’s announcements on sick pay, the UK is not a country where heroes – even the everyday variety – are likely to prosper.

[See also: How will history judge the UK’s Covid-19 performance?]

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