As COVID19 swept through the country, the UK had the lowest rate of statutory sick pay out of all countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The Trade Union Congress (TUC) has said that the Government’s inability to provide adequate financial support left millions “brutally exposed” to the pandemic, and that this must be investigated as part of the COVID19 Inquiry.
The COVID19 Inquiry
The Inquiry into the Government’s handling of the COVID19 pandemic is set to take witness evidence from Tuesday 13 June. Pressure on the Government is currently mounting as Cabinet Officials have been given a deadline of 4pm today to hand over evidence in the form of Boris Johnson’s diaries, notebooks and WhatsApp messages.
The Government had argued that it did not have the messages and notebooks, but Johnson has handed them over to officials and said they should be disclosed. The Cabinet Office has also argued that it should withhold “unambiguously irrelevant” material, but inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett has ruled that everything should be disclosed and she will decide what is or is not necessary for her work.
Johnson’s decision to publicly confirm he has handed over the material – stripping the Cabinet Office of one of its defences – and his suggestion that it should be disclosed to the inquiry has heaped pressure on his successor’s Government.
Lady Hallett issued her demand for the material under Section 21 of the Inquiries Act 2005, and failure to comply could lead to prosecution and a potential fine or jail term for an individual found guilty of the offence. The Government could seek a judicial review of her notice, questioning whether the demand for the documents falls within the scope of her inquiry – but legal experts have suggested the Cabinet Office would have a weak case given the wide remit set out in Lady Hallett’s terms of reference.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “We are fully committed to our obligations to the Covid-19 inquiry. As such, the Cabinet Office alone has already provided upwards of 55,000 documents, 24 personal witness statements, eight corporate statements, and extensive time and effort has gone into assisting the inquiry fulsomely over the last 11 months”.
However, they added “we are firmly of the view that the inquiry does not have the power to request unambiguously irrelevant information that is beyond the scope of this investigation. This includes the WhatsApp messages of Government employees which are not about work but instead are entirely personal and relate to their private lives.”
The TUC have argued that the UK’s sick pay system needs to be investigated as part of the inquiry. The union argues that limited sick pay undermined the country’s preparedness and ability to deal with COVID19 which resulted in millions of people facing huge financial insecurity.
Nearly a quarter (23%) of the UK workforce had to rely on SSP if they needed to self-isolate, rising to 31% for the lowest paid. At just £94 a week – the average worker faced a £418 drop in earnings if they had to self-isolate on SSP, the TUC said.
In 2019 sick pay was worth 18% of average earnings – compared with 34% when it was first introduced in 1983. The Conservatives scrapped reforms that would have extended SSP to nearly 2 million low-paid workers who did not qualify for it, which left the most financially burdened with no form of safety net.
The TUC general secretary, Paul Nowak, said “The failure to provide proper financial support was an act of self-sabotage that left millions brutally exposed to the pandemic. Many workers simply couldn’t afford to self-isolate. This pushed up infection rates, put a huge strain on our public services and ballooned the cost of test and trace.”
“The government could have boosted sick pay and made sure everyone could get it. But ministers chose not to. As a result the UK entered the pandemic with the most miserly rate of sick pay in the OECD. This cost us dear. It is vital that we learn the lessons of what went wrong – and where government austerity policies left us ill-prepared for a pandemic”.
Investigating the Government’s provisions concerning sick pay would add a crucial element to the inquiry concerning the protection and well-being of the population. Based on the statistics, inquiring the extent to which people were deterred from self-isolating due to limited support would be vital to analysing the Government’s handling of the COVID19 pandemic.