By Todd Hamer
Following pressure from Labour MPs, notably Emily Thornberry, and the Safe and Equal campaign last winter, we were told that “the Department of Health and Social Care has approved the payment of occupational sick pay for periods of self-isolation for all workers at Test Centres. This commitment has also been included in the tender specifications for the new Test Centre contract which commences in July 2021.”
As Safe and Equal activists have visited Test Centres across the country, we have found that the situation is more complicated. The government has outsourced the Test Centres to G4S, Serco, Sodexo, Mitie. But those firms have often further outsourced staffing their Test Centres to agencies.
The workers directly employed by the main contractors may get isolation pay; but many workers we have talked with are employed via agencies on zero hours contracts. Some were unsure about the pay arrangements if they had to take time off to isolate. Others told us that they got paid to isolate if they could provide evidence of a positive test but not for other reasons e.g. a member of their household was ill.
One worker was sent home to isolate due to being a close contact of a confirmed positive case and was not paid for this time.
In March 2020, NHS bosses were told they needed to arrange full isolation pay for subcontractors and bank staff. In May 2020, the PCS union negotiated full isolation pay for outsourced workers operating in civil service buildings. In June 2020, the government introduced the Infection Control Fund for care homes that included provision for full isolation pay for care workers.
The new on-paper agreement for full isolation pay for Test Centre workers is a further admission that exploitative employment practices and the UK’s desultory Statutory Sick Pay scheme are undermining attempts to control the virus. However, instead of addressing the problem at its root and legislating to ensure all workers are entitled to full sick pay (as in many European countries), the government has introduced sector-by-sector isolation pay quietly and half-heartedly, leaving plenty of workers excluded from the provision.
Part of the issue here is that the work-from-home boss class believe that paying workers to take time off to isolate will encourage absenteeism. In reality, “presenteeism” is a far greater problem. Workers attending work when they are unwell allows all sorts of infectious diseases to spread and accidents to occur.
Head of Test and Trace, Dido Harding told Emily Thornberry MP that she was “making changes to increase the financial support available to staff during periods of isolation” in recognition of the “immense contribution” of frontline Test Centre workers. But sick pay and isolation pay are not rewards for hard work: they are necessary health and safety measure to slow the spread of the virus.