In the middle of the Covid-19 outbreak and almost two calendar years of a pandemic, England lifted all its protective measures against the spread of the virus last week. In doing so, it follows the example of countries such as Denmark, Switzerland and the Dominican Republic, which have lifted legal requirements to self-isolate after a positive test.
In these countries, there is no longer a support network that allows people to avoid financial penalties in case of illness. Until now, in England, employees have been able to claim Statutory Sickness Benefit (SSP) from the first day of illness, which is £96.35 ($127) per week. Similarly, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Portugal, Sweden and France have waived waiting periods for sick pay and sickness benefits to combat the spread of the virus.
With Levels of Covid-19 infection in some areas of the UK they have reached their highest levels since the start of the pandemic, the government’s decision to lift restrictions is causing problems. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson advice To cope with these changes, one had to “be more disciplined and not go to work when you are sick.” He urged the British to break the habit of presenteeism and become more like German workers. Except that the Germans get 100 percent of their salary within eight weeks if they become ill, representing one of the highest sickness rates in Europe. British get the lowest. In the US, where the government is being pressured to lift Covid-19 restrictions and mandate masks, the law does not provide for sick pay at all.
Staying home when sick has never been part of the UK’s cultural fabric, where employees face pressure not to ‘let the side down’. Going to work when sick is the norm in the country, even if the illness can be easily passed on to others. Data for 2016 showed that 86 percent of Brits came to work with an infectious disease. The same study found that almost a quarter thought their boss would have preferred them to come to work under such circumstances. And so the infection can spread.
When the pandemic was in its early stages, there was some hope that it would end or at least reduce presenteeism in the workplace. However, in a country where statutory sickness benefits are getting worse, this is nothing more than a pipe dream. In the era of remote work, the need for soldiers prevailed. In the first year of the pandemic, the British actually took fewer sick days than in 2019, reaching the lowest level since 1995. More half of the hybrid workers (52 percent) and almost half of remote workers (44 percent) said they feel compelled to work when they feel unwell when they work remotely.
Correlation between paid sick leave and sick days taken is hard to ignore. The workers who were offered the most generous sick pay took the most absenteeism, and those who were offered the least took the least. Workers in Norway, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Belgium who receive 100 percent of their wages from the first week of illness and for at least a month also receive part the most sick days in Europe. On average, Germans take 18.3 sick days a year, while Britons only take 5.8. The incentive to stay at home from day one is especially important in the context of Covid, as viral load and risk of infection rush fast after the onset of symptoms, people can remain contagious for up to 10 days.
Alex Collinson, an analyst and researcher at the UK Trade Union Congress (TUC), notes that the reintroduction of the three-day waiting period means that if someone isolates for five days a week, they are only paid for two days. “That brings the SSP down from £96 a week to £39, which is not enough to live on,” he says. “It’s a huge barrier to doing the right thing.”
The TUC is proposing an increase to around £346 per week, as suggested by the Living Wage Fund. “When people get sick, they shouldn’t have to face financial hardship because they’re taking vacations,” Collinson says.
The new rules are particularly irritating for those who are clinically vulnerable and may struggle to return to work. Alison Crockford works as a cybersecurity communications manager and is immune-compromised due to a kidney transplant. “I would love to go back to the office in a hybrid model, but now that testing and lockdowns are no longer the norm, it’s much more difficult for me to drive safely to the office and work,” she explains.
“The realization that people with comorbidities will ‘die anyway’ and cannot be happy, functioning members of society depresses me,” says the 41-year-old. The ‘others’ of those who aren’t lucky enough to be completely healthy right now are exhausting.”
Beyond “improving the ability to stay away from work when sick”, no part of England’s plan provides a credible explanation of how immunocompromised and disabled people should live and do their jobs with the virus.
“For some time we have worked well in the UK to promote equality of opportunity and status in the workplace, but the removal of these measures takes a step back,” explains Simon Williams, a behavioral specialist at Swansea University. Indeed, data collected by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) in mid-March shows that people with disabilities are more likely to think that life will never return to normal. 57 percent avoid close contact with those they don’t live with, compared to 41 percent of non-disabled people. Most also spend more time at home.
Throughout the pandemic, close attention has been paid to the number of Britons who have died due to Covid, but less attention has been paid to those who have lost their health due to prolonged Covid. The true impact of this debilitating condition is beginning to show. According to the ONS own statistics, 1.3 million British experience symptoms lasting more than four weeks from exposure, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing. About 18% report that their ability to carry out daily activities was “severely limited”.
Needless to say, the impact on business has been and will continue to be enormous. A quarter of UK employers a survey of 804 organizations with more than 4.3 million employees by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development cites long-term Covid as the top reason for long-term absences for health reasons. About 46 percent have employees with long-term Covid. Resolution Foundation The think tank suggests that there is a high possibility that this is a contributing factor to the UK labor shortage and the Great Retirement. The same is true in the US, according to Brookings Institution.
The TUC is calling on the government to recognize long-term Covid as a disability. “It would protect workers under the Equality Act and, most importantly, give them the right to reasonable adjustments at work,” says Collinson. “This includes everything from flexible work schedules to longer rest breaks and dedicated software and hardware.”
Innate work ethic, pressure from above and financial concerns all contribute, but as employees return to the offices, Williams says this all-encompassing presentism is terrible for public health. “It promotes preventable transmission of infectious diseases, not just Covid, which is uneconomical for businesses,” he says. “In many countries, sick pay is much higher, and raising it would help change the cultural habit of feeling bad, complaining about it, but doing it anyway.”
Now that absenteeism has become a luxury that many workers cannot afford, individual businesses are being forced to create an environment that recognizes all levels of vulnerability. “We make should live with Covid and focus on personal responsibility,” says Williams. “But there is a danger that if we are talking about personal responsibility or politics, we will throw the baby out with the water.”
The best approach is a set of policies that people trust ability be responsible and be careful. At the very least, if governments want people to self-isolate—and they should—they need to get enough money to keep going. Perhaps then they could look more like Germans.
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