Emergency laws to widen statutory sick pay will be rushed in to help people with coronavirus, Boris Johnson announced today.
The Prime Minister revealed the £94.25-a-week payment will soon be available from day one of sickness or self-isolation – not after four days of sickness as it is now.
But Jeremy Corbyn slammed the changes for not going far enough – because a £118-a-week income threshold is still in place that blocks sick pay to 2million low-paid workers.
Sitting near Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Mr Johnson faced groans of fury at Prime Minister's Questions as he said those poor workers can claim Universal Credit instead.
Labour's leader said UC has a five-week wait for payment – a situation that will leave low paid workers with a "terrible choice between health and hardship".
Young Women's Trust chief executive Sophie Walker said "an extra three days of sick pay won't cut it.”
She added: "Young women will be among the hardest hit by coronavirus economic turmoil. They are more likely to be on Universal Credit and waiting for support payment. They are managing precarious work contracts and expected to be primary carers.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady added: "This is an important step forward for working people. But it’s not enough.
Scroll down for an explanation of how the law works.
"Two million workers still don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay. They can’t afford not to work. And statutory sick pay still isn’t enough to live on.
"Government must go further to ensure that no one is penalised for doing the right thing."
Laura Gardiner of the Resolution Foundation think tank said the announcement was "welcome" but will not support millions.
She added: "The government should now extend coverage of SSP further to ensure that no worker loses all of their income from doing the right thing.
"And start a broader review to ensure we have an adequate sick pay system. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to prompt this.”
CBI Deputy Director-General Josh Hardie called the change "an important first step" adding: "It is vital that sick pay rules don’t encourage people to ignore public health guidance."
James Taylor of disability equality charity Scope said: "This is an overdue change. Our Statutory Sick Pay system needs to start from day one, all of the time.
“The Government must seize on this momentum and bring forward plans to create a modern sick pay system where everyone gets support."
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “It's good to see the government listening and acting to allay people’s fears, but it needs to go much further, and quickly.
“This move won’t help care staff whose employers are telling them they won’t get paid at all if they go into isolation. Nor will it provide comfort to workers on zero-hours contracts."
GMB legal director Susan Harris said: "It is welcome that the Prime Minister has responded to our pressure and is ensuring workers will receive pay from day one if they have to self-isolate due to suspected COVID-19.
“But the Prime Minister must clarify his position and ensure the measure extends to all workers."
Mr Johnson told PMQs he was aware of issues with low-paid workers and the issue was under review.
"If they stay at home and if we ask people to self-isolate, they may lose out financially," he told the Commons.
"So, I can today announce that the Health Secretary will bring forward, as part of our emergency coronavirus legislation, measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the very first day you are sick instead of four days under the current rules, and I think that's the right way forward.
"Nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing."
But Jeremy Corbyn said: "The PM is not being clear about this." He added: "Will he guarantee that workers' rights to sick pay from day one… will apply to all claimants and those people who are not currently eligible for statutory sick pay, and therefore will have to make a terrible choice between health and hardship?"
Mr Johnson replied: "We are very much aware of the issues faced by the self-employed and those on zero-hour contracts.
"I should stress that some of them will be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay. Others will be entitled to help through the existing system such as Universal Credit."
As MPs groaned, he added: "We are urgently looking at the application process to reflect on the advice on self-isolation." And he urged MPs to continue "coming together" from across the Commons
The Tory government's climbdown comes after unions, Labour and Lib Dems piled pressure on Boris Johnson to change the law.
TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady wrote to Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey demanding an emergency law last night.
She said: "No one should be out of pocket for doing the right thing. But as it stands, many people won’t be able to meet basic living costs if they stay home from work.
“This is an impossible choice that has serious implications for us all."
TUC analysis claims there are nearly 2million low-paid workers who do not qualify for SSP, paid by their employer.
They include 34% of those on zero-hour contracts, 63% of workers aged 16 to 24 and one in 10 working women, the TUC said.
And they include more than half of over-65s who are still in work – despite the elderly being the most vulnerable group.
Tory ministers said yesterday – and Boris Johnson repeated today – that those not eligible can claim Universal Credit or contributory Employment and Support Allowance instead.
But MPs blasted that as not good enough – as UC has a five-week wait, and ESA needs claimants to have paid National Insurance.
It comes after the government announced a 27-page plan to deal with a Coronavirus epidemic in the UK.
The document warned a major outbreak could see a fifth of people off work at the same time – with troops on the streets, sports matches banned, police abandoning low-level crime, makeshift morgues and an army of NHS staff out of retirement.
The Chief Medical Officer said Brits will die, with 1% of those infected expected to be claimed by the virus – and up to 80% of Brits expected to be infected, though he said the true number will probably be "a lot lower".
Boris Johnson refused to deny claims that murder investigations could be halted to fight coronavirus. Instead he said: "We are not at that stage or anything like that stage yet."
Jeremy Corbyn said he welcomed the action plan generally but said: "A decade of Tory austerity means our NHS is already struggling to cope. Bed occupancy levels are at 94% and hundreds of our most vulnerable people are being treated on trolleys in corridors."
He called for additional funding to help the health service get through the outbreak.
Sick pay and benefit rules for Coronavirus explained
What is Statutory Sick Pay and am I eligible?
Statutory Sick Pay, worth £94.25 per week for up to 28 weeks, is available to full-time staff, part-time and zero-hour workers and agency workers. It's paid by your employer.
But crucially it only covers those on more than £118 a week.
Campaigners say that leaves gaps in the system for more than a million who have lower average earnings
There's another very important point: SSP only covers 'employees', not the self-employed.
Currently it only covers people once they've been ill for four days. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that four-day limit is being removed.
You also have to get a 'fit note' from a GP if you're off for more than seven days. However, this raises a problem because people with suspected Coronavirus are ordered not to visit their GP. DWP officials have urged firms to "use their discretion" in these cases, and pay SSP anyway.
Yes – if you've been told to self-isolate by a medical professional, for example NHS 111.
Not if you decide to self-isolate voluntarily, without medical grounds.
Even if you don't show symptoms, self-isolation is considered in the same way as sickness for employment purposes, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock. So you should be fine.
But crucially, you have to be eligible for sick pay in order to claim.
What if I'm not eligible for Statutory Sick Pay?
Ministers are advising anyone who's not eligible to claim either Universal Credit, or contributory Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
But this has caused anger because Universal Credit takes five weeks for the first payment to arrive, unless people take out an advance against their future benefits.
And contributory ESA requires people to have paid into the system with National Insurance.
What should I do if I'm on benefits, and I have to self-isolate?
This is a different, but related issue.
If you're on a benefit like Universal Credit that needs you to turn up to a Jobcentre appointment, you could be sanctioned for staying at home. This means your benefits are stopped.
Because of this, the DWP is urging benefit claimants to contact their Jobcentre and explain the situation if they are told to go into self-isolation. That way, they can avoid a sanction.
A DWP spokeswoman said: "Our staff are ready to support people if they are affected – we urge them to contact us by phone, or their Work Coach via their online journal, to explain their situation.
"Anyone not eligible to receive sick pay is able to claim Universal Credit and/or contributory Employment and Support Allowance."
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