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). Self-employed workers are not entitled to sick pay, and staff currently have to earn at least £118 a week (for 2019–2020) before they are eligible. New laws made on 28 March 2020 have removed the need to serve three waiting days before SSP becomes payable for anyone whose first day of incapacity is on or after 13 March 2020.

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.

Some firms have already reacted to the situation with Greggs being one of the first to confirm that it will pay staff who have to self-isolate because of coronavirus.

Work from home

On 16 March, the Prime Minister gave the first of what are daily news conferences which will be led either by him or a senior minister and will be attended by chief medical advisor Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

Warning that the UK is approaching the “fast growth part of the upward curve” of the outbreak, Mr Johnson said that the time had arrived when the Government must give people “very strong advice” to begin avoiding all unnecessary social contact and travel.

This includes working from home where they possibly can as well as avoiding pubs, clubs, theatres and restaurants. In addition, the Government would no longer support the supply of emergency workers at “mass gatherings”, although he did not define these more precisely.

“As for enforcement,” Mr Johnson said, “we have the powers if necessary, but I don’t believe it will be necessary to use those powers.”

Pointing out that London is ahead of the rest of the country in terms of the development of the virus, the Prime Minister called on people and workers in the capital to pay particular attention to the need for home working and for avoiding unnecessary social contact.

He also increased the time that anyone with a high temperature or a persistent cough should stay at home from 7–14 days and said that this rule should apply to anyone in the same household with an infected person.

Although Mr Johnson advised that “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact and to stop all non-essential travel”, he went on to say that these social distancing measures are particularly aimed at people above 70, adults with chronic illness such as heart disease, and pregnant women.

People with the “most serious health conditions” must avoid almost all social contact for 12 weeks, he said.

School closures

On 18 March, Boris Johnson confirmed that all schools in England are closed as of 20 March, in addition to school closures already announced for Scotland and Wales earlier that day. Schools in Northern Ireland are closed as of 23 March.

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.

Last reviewed 30 March 2020