Experts from the Royal Society have recommended that statutory sick pay rates be increased, and the furlough scheme extended, to prevent the possibility of a second wave of the deadly COVID-19 virus.
A recent report by Professors Sir Tim Besley and Sir Nicholas Stern suggests that the statutory sick pay of £95.85 per week does not sufficiently incentivise workers to stay home and self-isolate.
The report, published a day after the country officially entered its lowest ever period of recession, paints a bleak picture for the future of the economy should the government not reconsider its imminent tapering of the schemes and benefits that millions of workers currently rely on.
Many workers are already struggling with their finances, having received only 80% of their wages over the past few months because of being furloughed. Several of them also fear impending job losses and redundancies because of companies going bankrupt, as well as the general state of the economy. Additionally, social welfare systems have fallen pitifully short of delivering any real relief during this time. The government needs to find a means to provide an economic cushion for workers if they expect them to continue to restrict their own earning capacity by self-isolating.
The report by the Royal Society also recommends that the current government furlough scheme be extended to enable workers to gradually re-enter the workforce. The scheme, expected to gradually wind down until the end of October, currently provides aid to 9.6 million workers. The ending of the scheme is expected to lead to mass job losses – the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, for example, predicts that 3.5 million people will be left unemployed (the highest level in modern times).
The abrupt ceasing of financial aid is also likely to drive millions of workers to return to factories and offices, leading to a second wave of infections. Apart from the economic hit that would ensue, thousands of lives that would be at risk.
The Royal Society recommends a phased approach to the tapering of the furlough scheme. Some of the ideas suggested include: minimising the rotation of staff between different shifts, as well as the introduction of subsidised workplace testing, particularly in roles in which close contact is difficult to avoid.
The report also calls for the collection of more detailed information from financial institutions in order to measure the economic impact of these policy interventions. Increased availability of high-quality data could be invaluable in optimising the government response to reflect the current realities being faced by workers, allowing for a greater balance in the trade-off between public health and economic risk.