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GOVERNMENT officials hiding a sick pay scheme from workers struggling to afford to self-isolate during the Covid-19 pandemic was a “shameful and reckless” policy that risked lives, Labour and trade unions charged today.
Leaked emails between senior civil servants show that the Treasury instructed government officials to conceal a little-known provision in the coronavirus job retention scheme allowing bosses to temporarily furlough workers if they need to stay at home.
In the messages, sent in January and February this year, a senior official protested that the Treasury was blocking guidance for employers and staff on how to access the essential support payments.
“Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation, but [the Treasury] are reluctant to say this explicitly in guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be,” one official said in the emails, seen by news website Politico.
Campaigners and unions have long warned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s failure to offer adequate financial support to workers with Covid-19 symptoms was severely hindering Britain’s pandemic response, with it suffering one of the world’s highest death rates.
This country’s statutory sick pay of just £96.35 a week, one of the lowest rates in Europe, leaves workers markedly worse off than the furlough scheme, where the government provides 80 per cent of their normal pay.
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said: “It is shameful and reckless that the Chancellor [Rishi Sunak] ignored professional advice and put countless people and workplaces at unnecessary risk when he had the opportunity to help.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady stressed the revelations underline ministers’ failure to get to grips with this issue.
“Instead of plastering over the cracks with short-term fixes, the government should simply boost statutory sick pay,” she said.
“Ministers have the power to make self-isolation effective overnight. What they need to do is raise statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage and make sure everyone can get it.”
Unite national officer Joe Clarke condemned the “absolutely disgusting” approach of the Treasury, adding that it demonstrated that ministers have acted recklessly over workers’ safety.
“The government cynically suppressed this information from businesses at a time when over a 1,000 people a day were dying from Covid,” he said.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, Unite has consistently called for an increase in sick pay as workers cannot afford to self-isolate on less than £100 a week.
“It is simply astonishing that the government had in place measures to tackle the problem of poverty while self-isolating but cynically decided not to tell anyone about it.”
Calling for an urgent investigation, GMB national officer Rachel Harrison said: “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.
“This reinforces the case for a recovery based on stronger rights and valuing workers properly.”
Responding to the allegations, a Treasury official said: “In working up the detail of the scheme, we had to balance the need to get help out to people quickly while minimising the risk of fraud and protecting taxpayers’ money from abuse.”
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