The government is facing calls to pay the wages of workers told to self isolate under the new test and trace scheme to prevent people being forced to choose between paying their bills and putting others at risk.
Under the new NHS tracing programme, public health officials will ask anyone who has had close contact with a coronavirus patient to isolate for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms.
But concerns have been raised that workers could be plunged into financial hardship if they comply with the programme, which aims to curb infection rates as lockdown measures are eased.
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Some 7 million workers are only eligible for statutory sick pay of £95 per week, while an estimated 2 million of the lowest-paid employees do not qualify as their earnings fall below the threshold, according to recent analysis by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has previously admitted that he could not live on statutory sick pay.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said workers were having to “choose between paying their bills or putting their colleagues and communities at risk”.
She urged the government to offer the same support for employees self-isolating as those under the furlough scheme – where the state has underwritten 80 per cent of the wage bill to prevent mass layoffs.
“People should not be forced to suffer financial hardship for doing the right thing and self-isolating,” Ms Moran told The Independent.
“Currently workers risk having to choose between paying their bills or putting their colleagues and communities at risk.
“The health secretary has admitted he couldn’t survive on statutory sick pay, yet expects workers across the country to, as part of the government’s landmark scheme for tackling coronavirus.
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“The government has rightly offered generous support to those temporarily laid off through the furlough scheme. They must now offer the same level of support to those who need to self-isolate.”
She added: “The short term cost will be nothing compared to the long-term impact of failing to control another outbreak.”
Rachel Harrison, national officer at the GMB union, said the scheme had been brought in by ministers on “whopping salaries” without “any real understanding of its impact” on working people.
“People are being forced back to work in unsafe working environments, on unsafe public transport, to come into contact with people with Covid-19, and then be forced to take 14 days off work on statutory sick pay,” she said.
“Civic duty does not pay the bills, neither does statutory sick pay. If the government is instructing people to stay at home, they must pay their wages.
“Otherwise track and trace will just spread either poverty or infection.”
Union leaders have previously expressed concern that the test and trace system will be undermined unless sick pay is increased.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the government must raise statutory sick pay to the level of the real Living Wage – which works out at around £325 per week – and ensure the lowest paid workers are eligible.
She said: “Everyone wants NHS Test and Trace to work, so we can all get on with our lives. But it’s not viable to ask people to self-isolate, perhaps repeatedly, if they will be pushed into financial hardship by doing so.”
It comes amid problems with the rollout of the test and trace scheme, with NHS contact tracers unable to log on when it first launched last week. The accompanying smartphone which was originally due to launch in mid May has not yet been made widely available.
On Monday Mr Hancock insisted the test and trace system was a success but he was unable to provide figures of many people had been contacted so far.
However, figures obtained by Channel 4 News suggested fewer than four in 10 coronavirus patients identified by the scheme so far had been contacted.
The Treasury has been contacted by comment.