Government set to give self-employed workers cash to self-isolate

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Britain's health minister Matt Hancock walks past a hand sanitising station as he leaves after talking about coronavirus at the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce in London. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Millions of self-employed workers could be handed a financial lifeline if they need to self-isolate over the coronavirus, according to a UK minister.

Health secretary Matt Hancock gave the clearest signal yet on Thursday that next week’s budget will include support for self-employed workers not entitled to sick pay.

The government has been under mounting pressure to act amid warnings some workers with symptoms face a difficult choice between getting paid and following advice to stay away from work.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) added its voice on Thursday to the growing campaign for sick pay rights to be extended to an estimated 2 million workers who earn too little to qualify. Sick pay is currently only paid to employees who earn more than £118 a week, while many of Britain’s 5 million self-employed workers also have limited protection against lost earnings.

Read more: Budget should give ‘hardship’ fund to firms struggling amid outbreak

Hancock told delegates at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference in London the government was working on a way to ensure the self-employed were not “penalised for doing the right thing.”

Hancock had highlighted plans in his speech to force employers to pay sick pay from day one, not day four as under current regulation. But unions have warned the reform does nothing for the low-paid of self-employed.

The minister did not spell out what form support for the self-employed could take, and said it was “not straightforward.” But the government will put provision in place for workers “no matter the contract or nature of employment,” he said.

Josh Hardie, CBI deputy director general, said it was “vital” workers had no incentive to ignore public health advice for fear of lost pay. He said paying people where self-isolation meant not working was “clearly the right thing to do.”

The business chief also warned some firms could come under “extreme pressure” if a large number of staff could not work. “If costs become too great, the government can look at options for emergency relief measures for businesses and to support jobs,” he said in a statement.

It comes after the government published its plan for tackling the coronavirus on Tuesday, warning up to a fifth of the entire workforce could be absent from work if the outbreak significantly escalates in the UK.

Read more: Coronavirus could leave one in five absent from work

The document warned previous disease outbreaks mean “widespread exposure” may be inevitable in the UK, but says slowing down its spread is still key.

The report says officials are uncertain about the impact on UK businesses, but say it is possible as many as one in five employees could be absent “in a stretching scenario.”