There is a risk that people will not self-isolate when they catch Covid-19 if relaxations of lockdown rules are not joined up with improved sick pay, MPs have been told.
Witnesses told the Treasury Select Committee that workers need help to not go back to their workplaces when they are infectious.
“If we’re asking people to stay at home to protect all of our lives, we have to protect their livelihoods,” said Resolution Foundation chief executive Torsten Bell.
He added that this was doubly vital as it would slow the spread of the virus, and keep the so-called reproduction (R) number down.
“As we move to reopen the economy, maybe we think the time has passed, but we’re going to need a functioning sick pay system over the coming months to increase the size of economic activity and social activity that we can have without going back over (an R number of) one.”
His sentiment was backed by other witnesses who were speaking to MPs on the influential committee.
“It is way below where it is in other civilised countries, and therefore it needs to be looked at again,” said Vicky Pryce, a board member at the Centre for Economic and Business Research.
They were speaking as the UK prepares to see what direction chancellor Rishi Sunak will point the economy in as the end of lockdown approaches.
It is unclear when restrictions will lift, but more than 10 million people in the UK have now had their first vaccine jab, so experts are predicting a slow reopening in coming months.
The Government has pumped tens of billions of pounds into schemes to prop up employment during the pandemic, helping businesses and paying employee salaries directly. But statutory sick pay has remained problematic, the experts said.
Mr Bell said that those who have been forced to stay home because they are sick during the pandemic have only been given £95 a week, while the typical furloughed earners is getting £330 per week.
Many people are also not covered by statutory sick pay policies as they earn too little money, so are not incentivised to stay at home if they get diagnosed, or even take a test in the first place when they show symptoms.
“The need for a functioning statutory sick pay during an epidemic is one of the more blindingly obvious issues, and the fact that we have not solved this adequately over the course of the year is a serious problem,” Mr Bell said.
He added that only one in eight workers is eligible for a £500 one-off payment from the Government if they get sick, which was introduced during the pandemic.
“In the circumstances we are in, it seems to be just a fairly basic bit of change that should have been made early on,” said Paul Johnson, a director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies.