UK government hid sick pay scheme for workers isolating with coronavirus

The U.K. government suppressed access to sick pay for people isolating with coronavirus at the height of the pandemic, London Playbook first reported.

Emails between senior civil servants, seen by London Playbook, show the U.K. Treasury instructed government officials to conceal a little-known provision from the COVID-19 furlough scheme that granted sick pay to people isolating with the coronavirus. In the emails, exchanged in January and February 2021, a senior official protested that the Treasury was blocking guidance that would have explained to employers and employees how to access this money.

“Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation, but [the Treasury] are reluctant to say this explicitly in guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be,” the official complained in an email.

The senior official explained in their complaint why they felt the Treasury needed to approve the guidance for how to help people access furlough money when isolating: “Incentive payments are too low to incentivise employees to take tests due to risk of loss of income.” The failure of the government to offer adequate financial support to those isolating has been one of the main criticisms of its handling of the pandemic, and ministers have repeatedly insisted that they have made enough money available to those forced to take time off work. These emails however revealed the concerns of senior civil servants that the incentive payments for isolation were not enough.

London Playbook reported on other emails between senior officials, advisers and ministers where the issue was repeatedly raised.

“In working up the detail of the scheme we had to balance the need to get help out to people quickly while minimising the risk of fraud and protecting taxpayers’ money from abuse,” a Treasury official said in response to the revelations, adding that £65 billion had been spent so far on the furlough scheme, officially known as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

“It is shameful and reckless that the chancellor ignored professional advice and put countless people and workplaces at unnecessary risk when he had the opportunity to help,” Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said.

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