The UK Government has been accused of suppressing access to sick pay for workers forced to self-isolate after testing positive for COVID-19.
According to emails leaked by Politico, it has been alleged that the Treasury instructed senior government officials to conceal the fact that the furlough scheme could be used to access isolation sick pay.
This is thought to be due to the fact that the furlough scheme already cost £64 billion by June 2021.
A senior official was quoted in the email, stating:
Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation, but HMT are reluctant to say this explicitly in guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be.
At present, individuals who are forced to self-isolate because of the virus may be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay. People on low incomes may also be permitted to receive extra support such as the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment.
However, throughout the pandemic, many have criticised the Statutory Sick Pay – with Resolution Foundation research stating this is the lowest level of Government support across any advanced economy during COVID-19.
As such, in December 2020, the think tank suggested that the furlough scheme could be utilised to encourage people to self-isolate and stop the spread of the virus.
However, a Treasury Spokesperson stated that the furlough scheme is not intended to accommodate people who are self-isolating or otherwise facing short-term periods of illness:
It has always been clear that the purpose of the furlough scheme is to support jobs – we’ve been upfront about that from the start.
The guidance sets out that the scheme is not intended for short-term absences from work due to sickness or self-isolation. We have a specific support package in place for those self-isolating due to coronavirus, including £500 one off payments for those on low incomes.
If an employer wants to furlough an employee for business reasons and they are currently off sick then they are eligible to do so as with other employees. This has been set out in guidance since April last year.
Rachel Harrison, GMB National Officer, criticised the Government for its handling of this matter:
Suppressing advice on furlough eligibility during self-isolation is scandalous and incompetent.
Lives will likely have been lost and higher infection rates will cost the NHS and employers far more in the long run.
We need to know whether Ministers approved the decision to withhold this advice. An urgent investigation should be established with accountability to Parliament.
This reinforces the case for a recovery based on stronger rights and valuing workers properly.