On Thursday 12 March, after an hour of dropping off restaurant deliveries, UberEats driver Mark Aldridge, 46, got back on his motorbike and returned to his home in Marsden just outside Huddersfield. He felt too ill to continue working, and noticed that he was experiencing symptoms of Covid-19.
He called NHS 111 and the operator advised him to self-isolate, which he did. Living in rented accommodation with his partner who was working from home, they would have to follow government advice and stay indoors for 14 days to ensure they were no longer contagious with coronavirus when they came back out.
Aldridge emailed Uber – for which he has been delivering food for 18 months – about his situation, asking what financial assistance the company could provide while he could no longer do food delivery jobs.
He received what he describes as a “standard response” informing him that his request had been passed onto the relevant department.
He has been emailing the company every day ever since, and still hasn’t received a penny of help.
When asked for comment, Uber pointed me to its published advice for couriers:
“We are providing financial assistance to anyone who drives or delivers with Uber and is diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in individual quarantine by a public health authority due to their risk of spreading COVID-19. This assistance is now available worldwide.”
This assistance also extends to those advised to self-isolate by a public health authority, like Aldridge has been. Uber linked me to this further information:
“Any driver or delivery person who is diagnosed with COVID‑19 or is individually asked to self‑isolate by a public health authority will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days while their account is on hold. We’ve already helped drivers in some affected areas, and we’re working to quickly implement this worldwide.”
However, in the UK there is still little capacity to be tested for coronavirus, and it is therefore difficult to receive a diagnosis. Equally, Aldridge struggled to receive an official sick note via 111 or his doctor because resources are so stretched, so he simply received advice over the phone.
“They [Uber] said once they’d received documentation, they’d aim to make payments in three to five days. Well, what day am I going to receive money because I’ve got bills to pay and things are falling behind?” asks Aldridge.
“It’s impossible. It’s a Catch-22, isn’t it? If they’re asking for documentation, they know we’re not going to get that documentation. It just makes it a PR exercise, it’s not actually a realistic offer of help.”
Food delivery drivers are on the frontline of the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, as the population has been asked to stay indoors, infected households self-isolate, and online supermarket deliveries are hard to come by.
But their working conditions are putting them in a difficult – and potentially dangerous – position. Most are classed as contractors rather than employees, which means they receive fewer rights from the companies they work for.
“For food delivery, almost universally, these couriers are not classed as employees so that means they’re not entitled to statutory sick pay,” says Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which represents such workers. This union is legally challenging the government to extend statutory sick pay to such workers, and raise its level to full pay.
“This is urgent,” he tells me. “This was a serious situation before this pandemic – we’ve been arguing about proper sick pay for the past nine years, but this is really bringing it to the fore, not least because the entire public is at risk due to the government’s failure to provide for proper sick pay.”
Statutory sick pay is currently £94.25 a week, and at the time of our interview was all that was available through Universal Credit for the self-employed. As of 26 March, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced a grant worth 80 per cent of a self-employed worker’s average monthly profits over the past three years, with payments kicking in “no later” than the beginning of June.
“When I first started self-isolating, I believed that I would receive some assistance from Uber, so I wasn’t really worried about it – I thought ‘I’m doing the right thing so they’ll do the right thing’, but they haven’t,” says Aldridge.
“The reality is that food couriers quite simply aren’t going to self-isolate if they need to. If we can’t afford to, we’re not going to.”
He has begun the application process for Universal Credit. Yet there is a surge of demand and long application waiting times for the benefit, and a five-week wait for the first payment means many couriers like Aldridge would be out of pocket for over a month if they stopped working to self-isolate.
“The last thing I want is to come out of this with god knows how many debts I need to catch up on,” he says. “Then you’ll constantly be chasing your tail for something that isn’t your fault.”
In Stockton-on-Tees, 24-year-old Hannah Beth has worked for over a year delivering food for Just Eat through a courier called Stuart, which is part of the DPDgroup delivery firm.
With an immune condition that means she has low blood platelets, Beth has been advised by her doctor not to go out, to avoid contracting the virus. The government has told vulnerable people like her to stay indoors for 12 weeks.
Nevertheless, she currently cannot afford to stop working. “I’ve seen a decrease by half in my earnings and in the number of jobs available” since coronavirus began spreading, she reveals. “I think there are maybe just one or two restaurants in our area now that aren’t closed.”
A spokesperson for Stuart says:
“We are compensating couriers who have been tested positive with COVID-19. All that we require from the courier partner is an official verification of this provided by the NHS. All our teams are currently looking into further ways of supporting our courier partners at this time, including encouraging the government to extend the pay policy for employees announced last week to the 5 million self-employed in the UK.”
The spokesperson also points couriers towards Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance.
“They have to have a positive test, and proof of that, and as far as I’m aware you can’t just get a test,” says Beth.
“We are all really stressed and scared. But until we know we have something in place to look after us, I’m essentially going against my doctor’s orders at the moment, purely because I know there’s nothing in place for me,” she says. “And what would be in place through Universal Credit wouldn’t even cover my rent or my wheelchair payments.”
Not only does Beth feel financially vulnerable, but she fears for her health too. Although she has been given advice about social distancing and contactless delivery by her company (measures that a spokesperson from Stuart confirms), she feels the message hasn’t got through to customers.
“I’ve had a lot of customers who have come outside and tried to get the bag out of my hand,” she says. “I tell them to get back two metres, and they say, ‘Well, why? Can’t you just pass me it?’ I don’t know if the advice is being relayed to the people themselves who are ordering.”
Beth and her fellow couriers have been asked to wipe down their bags and vehicles before and after each job. They must “ensure that packages are sealed before handover, that the area is kept sanitised”, according to a spokesperson.
However, they have not been issued with masks, gloves, antibacterial gel or wipes by the company. Instead, they must buy disinfecting materials themselves and claim for up to £20 back with a proof of receipt.
Such products are hard to come by, with pharmacists reporting runs on antibacterial gel, and even doctors and nurses lacking adequate protective equipment.
“Those who have managed to buy some and kept receipts may have bought them from a cornershop where it doesn’t actually say ‘hand gel’, it’s just a general receipt, so you can’t use that receipt,” says Beth. “And £20 doesn’t stretch very far when you’re wiping your bag down before and after every job, say you have ten jobs in a day.
“It’s like putting a plaster on a broken leg in my opinion.”
A spokesperson for Just Eat says it has implemented contact-free delivery, and is “in regular contact with our restaurant partners and delivery couriers to remind them of the latest government guidance on measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and are supporting couriers during a period of self-isolation helping them to manage their finances if they need to stop providing their services for a short period”.
This financial support, of 14 days’ relief for self-isolating couriers, is only available for those directly contracted with Just Eat.
Another popular food delivery company, Deliveroo, comments:
“We were the first delivery platform to introduce contact-free delivery to ensure the safest service possible for our riders, restaurants and customers, and we have made free hand sanitiser and masks available.
“Deliveroo is providing financial support for riders across the world who are diagnosed with the virus or who are told to isolate themselves by a medical authority, and providing constant safety and hygiene updates, based on official health guidance.”
However, eligibility for this financial support is also dependent on proof of whether “you have contracted COVID-19, or have been placed in quarantine by a medical authority”.
Despite restaurant closures, a surge in demand for food delivery will keep courier and takeaway services in business during the pandemic, relying on workers to risk contracting the virus.
“While companies may start folding across the country, there are certain industries that will boom throughout this crisis once we’re in a position where people are ordering food all the time,” says union leader Dr Moyer-Lee.
“We want to see food delivery companies voluntarily doing what they need to do to protect people – basic health and safety equipment and proper sick pay, at the rate of full wages, so that it enables people to stay at home when needed to follow public health advice.”
Even the prospect of the new state scheme to aid freelancers will not completely reassure these food delivery workers, and the money would arrive too late for many. “It’s still going to be weeks down the line until money is available and getting paid out,” warns Aldridge.
“I just want to feel that they [the company] actually care,” says Beth, who believes some form of danger money from courier companies is required to recognise the risk. “Maybe an extra £2 an hour, because we’re working in dangerous conditions. They really need to be paying us extra if they’re trying to say that we are essential workers.”
For Mark Aldridge, who has one day left of self-isolation, his job will be seen as vital in the weeks ahead.
“As everyone’s told to stay indoors, there are going to be a lot of vulnerable people and older people we’re dealing with,” he says. “We may be asked to take on duties to distribute for the NHS or food banks. That work is only going to become more important.”