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Editorial: Precarious work raises the risk of a coronavirus pandemic

THE government’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty now holds that a coronavirus epidemic in Britain is “likely.” And today’s tally of new infections was the country’s highest so far.

This makes demands from Labour and trade union leaders for action on sick pay for gig economy workers urgent.

Boris Johnson’s concession of statutory sick pay from day one in cases of suspected coronavirus is welcome but fails to recognise the severity of the potential threat.

A Prime Minister whose lethargy and indifference in the face of national crises has been highlighted by catastrophic floods over recent weeks cannot be taken at face value when he blusters vaguely that “no-one whether employed or self-employed — whatever the status of their employment — [will be] penalised for doing the right thing.”

Millions of workers who are self-employed (in many cases subject to bogus self-employment contracts), work zero-hours contracts or are otherwise precariously employed will not benefit at all from the shift on statutory sick pay.

Advice from Work and Pensions Minister Justin Tomlinson that such workers should seek to claim universal credit if they believe they have caught the virus shows characteristic Tory indifference to the reality of life for gig economy workers. 

Very few will be able to survive waiting periods of up to five weeks before such payments can come through — indeed, a quarter of British adults have no savings at all. Many will not be able to take the financial hit of moving to universal credit. 

Fear of retribution from employers is a serious deterrent to taking time off even when necessary. On Question Time last autumn Ken Loach famously highlighted the case of Don Lane, a delivery driver who died after missing medical appointments because he could not afford the fines levied by the parcel company that effectively, though not legally, employed him, for missing work. 

A 2018 survey showed 79 per cent of us have gone into work when sick. Reasons ranged from worrying about coping with the backlog on their return to fear that their manager would not believe they were really ill.

All spoke to the reality that the majority of British workers do not have the protection or confidence that comes with trade union membership: an unorganised, disempowered workforce whose members compete for management favour is a real risk to people’s health and wellbeing.

That’s been true for years. The Conservatives have never shown much interest in the health or wellbeing of the working class.

But a potential epidemic means the threat is not just to the health of the workers who force themselves to come in when unwell.

Efforts to contain, delay and mitigate (to use the government’s terms for the projected phases in which British authorities would deal with a pandemic) the spread of coronavirus will founder if millions of workers know that taking time off will affect their ability to pay the rent or put food on the table.

An anarchic capitalist economy, cash-starved local authorities and public services weakened by a decade of “austerity” all restrict Britain’s ability to emulate the sweeping and cohesive containment measures that China has used to successfully contain coronavirus and massively reduce the number of new cases.

This contributes to Whitty’s “worst case scenario” in which 80 per cent of the population contract the virus — which would entail over half a million deaths if current fatality rates of around 1 per cent of infections apply.

This nightmare will only draw closer unless the government is forced to ensure that financial insecurity does not prevent workers from acting to protect themselves and their colleagues.

Gig economy workers must be guaranteed sick pay, not directed to a hostile, snail-paced and inadequate social security system.

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