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14 April 2020

How sick pay for workers could help prevent deaths in care homes

PPE and testing deservedly get all the headlines. But there's another, easier way for Matt Hancock to help the social care sector: sick pay.  

By George Grylls

Sarah O’Connor, a care worker in West Yorkshire, is living proof that the social care sector is treated differently from the NHS. When the former nurse worked in a hospital, if she fell ill, she received six months full pay before going onto half pay. Now, despite doing much of the same work as before, she is only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 per week  — which includes the meagre raise of £1.60 that came into effect earlier this month.
“Everybody in social care has different levels of pay, but I don’t know many people who could live on statutory sick pay,” she says.

O’Connor used her annual leave to take time off a couple of weeks ago when she came down with coronavirus symptoms. But, unable to secure a test, she does not know whether or not she has actually had the virus. She now faces an uncomfortable choice if she were to come down with a slight cough again: play it safe or risk falling behind on bills. “We’re putting ourselves as much in the firing line as the NHS are,” says O’Connor. 

In the past week, just as was the case in Europe, it has become clear that the social care sector is now a parallel frontline to the NHS in dealing with coronavirus. Recent reports from around the country make grim reading: 13 residents dead in a Glasgow care home; seven dead in a Stepney Green care home; 13 dead in an East Lothian care home; 15 dead in a Luton care home; six dead in a Belfast care home. It goes on.

Figures released by the ONS from the week 28th March-3rd April suggest the actual death toll from coronavirus is about 15 per cent higher than the numbers read out in the daily press conference — which account for all deaths registered in hospitals. And yet, on a day when the two largest care providers in the UK reported 521 fatalities in their homes, this count is already showing its age. An LSE study estimated 42-57 per cent of all coronavirus deaths in Europe occurred in care homes.

(See also: Could social care become the new front line in the coronavirus pandemic?)

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When you speak to care workers themselves it becomes clear that, along with PPE and testing, one of the outstanding issues is statutory sick pay (SSP) — a problem that is much easier for the government to solve than the supply issues dominating the headlines.

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“Personally I would like the government to pay us a decent amount of SSP, even if it’s short term,” says one carer working on the south coast of England, concerned that she might be fired if she gave her name. “After all the recent deaths in care homes, when is Matt Hancock going to realise that the social care sector needs some financial help? How many carers are working when they should be self-isolating as they can’t afford to take time off, because SSP is not enough to live on?”

Another care worker from Scotland texted anonymously late at night last week to make a similar point. “I am scared. I work long hours but don’t get any sick pay or PPE. I love my job but I don’t want to die. I have kids and grandchildren.”

Analysis by the union GMB last year showed that 795,000 carers work in the private sector, of which 55 per are not entitled to a single day of sick pay a year. According to the charity Skills for Care, around a quarter of the UK’s carers are on zero-hours contracts — meaning they move from care home to care home, private residence to private residence, on low salaries with little or no employment protection, almost as if the system had designed a perfect way for the virus to transmit itself to the most vulnerable. 

Then there are those who earn so little (less than £118 per week) that they are not even eligible for SSP. “A lot of carers all round the country are single mums,” says the carer on the south coast. “They work part-time.” When shifts are squeezed in and around childcare, how can you justify the lost income of time taken off for what could just be a common cold?

Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic is exposing the structural inadequacies in our social care sector. There are plenty of questions for a future inquiry: why did MPs procrastinate on coming up with a funding solution? Will the public accept the need for change if it means higher National Insurance contributions? How does Rishi Sunak’s decision to overlook social care in his most recent budget look in hindsight? 

In the meantime, along with PPE and testing, there is a quick and easy solution for Matt Hancock. As with the furlough scheme, he could subsidise SSP — so that carers are not incentivised to work when they display coronavirus symptoms.