Last reviewed 9 September 2020

Reader note — December 2020. This article refers to self-isolation periods of 14 days which was correct at the time it was written. Please note that self-isolation periods have undergone adjustment and may no longer be 14 days.

Setting out his action plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus, on 4 March, in the Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that emergency legislation would be introduced to ensure that workers will get statutory sick pay (SSP) from the first day off work, not the fourth.

People who self-isolate to help to protect others from the virus should not be “penalised for doing the right thing”, he said.

SSP is usually paid from the fourth day of sick leave and is paid for up to 28 weeks at £94.25 a week (for 2019–2020), which increased to £95.85 on 6 April 2020. Self-employed workers are not entitled to sick pay, and staff had to earn at least £118 a week (for 2019–2020) and now £120 (for 2020–2021) before they are eligible. New laws made on 28 March 2020 confirm that those absent due to coronavirus are entitled to receive SSP from day one, not day four, of this absence. However, they will still need to create a period of incapacity for work, which is four calendar days.

The cost of providing SSP to any worker or employee off work because of the virus for up to 14 days for businesses with fewer than 250 employees will be met in full by the Government — estimated to be over £2 million. Employers will be able to claim a rebate for SSP payments from 26 May 2020. This can be backdated to 13 March 2020 for those who were off due to having symptoms, or self-isolating as a result of living with someone who had symptoms. It can be backdated to 16 April 2020 if the employee was “shielding” as a result of the coronavirus.

This has led to concerns among trade unions with particular reference to people whose jobs mean that they cannot take part away from the workplace and those in the gig economy who will be worried about not being paid.

UNISON General secretary Dave Prentis has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey asking her to amend the rules so that employers have to recognise the time off as sick leave and provide wages for workers from day one.

They must also pay them regardless of how much they earn or their type of job contract, he argued.

As a result of the Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020, which came into force on 13 March, a person who is self-isolating in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England (PHE) will be deemed incapable of work for the purposes of claiming SSP. Further guidance can be found on the GOV.UK website.

The Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit (Coronavirus Disease) Regulations 2020 also came into force on 13 March. They give the Secretary of State discretion to disapply the seven waiting days that would otherwise apply to a person who has made a claim for an employment and support allowance. This applies to both contributory and income-related employment and support allowance. The Secretary of State may exercise that discretion where a person is infected or contaminated with coronavirus disease, is isolating to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease, or is caring for a child (or qualifying young person) who falls into either of those categories.

Similarly, the Secretary of State is given discretion to decide that a person who makes a claim for, or is entitled to, universal credit or employment and support allowance may be treated as a person having limited capability for work. This again applies to both contributory and income-related employment and support allowance. These regulations expire eight months after they come into force.

Meanwhile TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has warned that inadequate provision of sick pay could stop people taking up public health advice, since many workers will struggle to meet basic living costs if they cannot attend work for a prolonged period.

As a result, some may feel they have no choice but to go to work while ill, or against Government advice. Currently, nearly two million of the lowest-paid workers do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay.

The Government has said self-isolation from coronavirus counts as sick leave. Acas advised that it would be good practice (but not mandatory) for employers to follow this suggestion.

Comment by Peninsula Associate Director of Advisory Kate Palmer

It is becoming more and more apparent that the UK economy is going to have many challenges to face because of the coronavirus and the bottom line of many businesses is going to take the brunt.

Changing the rules on qualifying criteria for paying statutory sick pay is one example of a direct hit on the finances as sick pay bills will increase significantly.

Although this won’t be welcome news to small businesses, in particular, some will see that it is likely to be better in the long run as employees will not be encouraged to be in work when they really shouldn’t be, and risk passing on the virus.

The Government now needs to ensure that it does all it can to support businesses through what is going to be a very testing time to prevent the spread of the disease so that as few people as possible need to take time off sick.