The NHS test and trace system is at risk of failing because four in 10 workers would be plunged into financial hardship if they had to self-isolate on Statutory Sick Pay, a poll suggests.
Millions of people are only eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) of £95.85 a week, an amount that health secretary Matt Hancock admitted in March that he would not be able to live on.
Self-employed workers and those earning less than £120 per week get no sick pay at all.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady warned that the government had left a “gaping hole” in the test and trace system. She called for SSP to be made available to everyone at a substantially increased rate of £320 per week.
Ms O’Grady accused ministers of incompetence through their alleged failure to address a glaring problem with the welfare safety net that poses serious risks to public health as Covid-19 case numbers begin to rise again.
She added that the prospect of mass unemployment this winter meant large numbers of people from all walks of life could face living off benefits for the first time. “The government needs to recognise that our levels of welfare have fallen well behind other countries,” Ms O’Grady said.
“They need to wake up to the fact that our safety net just isn’t good enough. People can’t sustain a family or indeed themselves on the kind of money that’s available.”
A no-deal Brexit, made more likely by the government’s apparent plan to renege on the withdrawal agreement, risked putting even more people out of work, Ms O’Grady said. “For goodness sake, why make a bad situation worse?” she asked.
A survey commissioned by the TUC found that 43 per cent of workers would be unable to pay their bills if told to self-isolate and forced to live on £95.85 a week.
Among workers earning less than £15,000, half would not be able to meet their basic outgoings.
“The government is outsourcing its moral responsibility to workers who want to do the right thing but know that if they do go on statutory sick pay they will be making their families pay a price,” Ms O’Grady said.
“It puts everything at risk. Asking workers to self-isolate on £96 a week is not viable – especially when many don’t have savings to fall back on.
“Even when ministers admit that they couldn’t do it themselves, months later, nothing has been done and we’ve got two million workers who do not earn enough to even qualify for Statutory Sick Pay.
“It smacks of ‘one rule for us, another rule for everybody else’.”
“We can’t have a situation where people are forced to choose between their health and paying their bills.”
The Independent has contacted the Department for Work and Pensions for comment.
The warning came as Labour leader Keir Starmer grilled Boris Johnson during Prime Minster’s Questions over problems with test and trace which have resulted in people with Covid-19 symtoms being told they must travel hundreds of miles if they want to be tested.
“The prime minister needs to know how anxious hundreds of families are,” Mr Starmer told the House of Commons.
“In the last few weeks they’ve been sent all over the country or been told there are no tests. It can’t be brushed off.”
Mr Johnson avoided responding to the central point, accusing the opposition leader of “carping” and undermining public faith in the test and trace system.