The UK low rates of statutory sick pay and its limited eligibility could put our ability to ‘live with Covid-19’ at risk, says the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The think tank warns that people will find it increasingly difficult to isolate in keeping with guidelines due to low sick pay, combined with the cost of living crisis.

The think tank also warns that while UK statutory sick pay is set at amongst the lowest rates in Europe, too many workers are going without any protection at all. 

Analysis, conducted by the Virus Watch study at University College London, used in the IPPR report, shows that many people are not even able to access basic levels of sick pay. It also says the most vulnerable groups are being unfairly impacted the most. 

Class and race disparity in sick pay access

It says there are a racial, class, age and financial disparities in access to sick pay. The report found South Asian workers are around 40 per cent less likely to get access to sick pay than white British workers. It says this disparity cannot be explained by income, occupation or employment status, suggesting institutional racism plays a part.

Dr Parth Patel, IPPR and UCL research fellow, said:“We all want to put the pandemic behind us, but the reality is that we need to understand how to successfully ‘live with Covid’. If we don’t, there is a real risk Covid-19 becomes an endemic disease of disparity, primarily circulating among poor and minority ethnic communities.

The report also found households earning less than £25,000 are around twice as likely to lack access to any sick pay compared to households earning above £75,000. While workers aged over 65 were five times more likely to lack access to sick pay compared to younger workers (25-44 year olds).

Concerningly, it also found those working in jobs traditionally considered working class are more likely to lack access to sick pay. Those in outdoor trades are five times more likely to lack access to sick pay than managers and senior officials. 

Abolish lower earnings limit

The report is calling on the government to expand access to sick pay by abolishing the lower earnings limit. It also wants to see an increase the statutory replacement rate to 80 per cent of previous earnings, in keeping with several European countries.

As people return to the office, IPPR also calls on the government to recognise the link between work and health, and work towards creating a post-pandemic world of work with more good quality jobs, with healthier conditions, hours and environments.

According to Dr Parth: “Sick pay rates in the UK are among the lowest in the developed world, but until now it has been very poorly understood which workers actually lack access to any sick pay whatsoever. The class, race and age disparities in sick pay access revealed by this new analysis risk entrenching the inequalities exposed by the pandemic and constraining the UK’s ability to ‘live with Covid’.

The pandemic showed how linked work and health are, as new IPPR analysis of ONS data reveals that people in jobs traditionally considered working class were twice as likely to die from Covid-19 than those in jobs considered middle class. Lower paid occupations have also experienced the highest Covid-19 mortality rates.

IPPR urges the government to learn from the pandemic and start considering economic and employment policy as health policy by improving working conditions and tackling leading determinants of health, such as low-pay and job insecurity. The report says, “it is important for the government to not simply focus on the quantity of work, as it has been doing, but equally on the quality of the work.”

Dr Patel said: “As the cost of living crisis takes hold, it will only become harder for people to isolate, which makes it even more important that the government acts now to raise sick pay and make it available to all workers.”