Letter sent 5 March to NI Executive ministers regarding COVID-19 and alleviating the impact on affected workers The letter was sent to the ministers for Economy, Communities, Health, Finance & TEO.
6 Mar 2020
Dear Ministers Foster & O’Neill, Dodds, Swann, Hargey and Murphy
I am writing to you with regard to COVID-19.
I would firstly like to acknowledge and pay tribute to the NI Executive’s swift response and that of all relevant public authorities to this unprecedented and rapidly evolving public health threat.
More cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Northern Ireland yesterday, notably in Queen’s University, which is taking prompt measures to contain the possible spread of infection. However, we must also acknowledge the warnings from the Department of Health that it is highly likely that the spread of this virus could significantly increase. The government’s own plans indicate that up to a fifth of the workforce may be off work during the peak of the epidemic.
The government has confirmed that any worker who is required to go into self-isolation, quarantine or who falls ill with symptoms will be entitled to statutory sick pay from Day 1.
Because nearly two million workers in the UK don’t currently earn enough to qualify for sick pay, many may find themselves struggling to make ends meet. As you are aware, NI has a disproportionate amount of workers who earn such low pay, and who are not therefore eligible.
Even for those who are eligible, the payment is still too low at just £94.25 a week.
These arrangements, if not improved, may lead to workers not taking the appropriate time off work, either in self-isolation to prevent infection, or when genuinely ill in order to avoid a financial loss. This is an impossible choice that has serious implications for us all.
We echo the calls from our colleagues in the TUC and those made in the Republic of Ireland by the ICTU General Secretary Patricia King to the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
There are steps which we believe that the NI Executive should consider regardless of the response from Westminster. We should be urging further action in the name of public safety across the UK, and across the island of Ireland. Some of us remember the drastic and ultimately successful steps taken by the NI Executive to contain the spread of Foot and Mouth disease in the early years of devolved power. The challenge is of that scale.
We believe the government should also be putting together emergency support for workers faced with the threat of the virus that would include:
• Emergency legislation to ensure universal SSP coverage for all workers
• An emergency fund to assist employers with the cost of this and to provide support for those workers who will not currently receive SSP
• Removing the lower earnings threshold to ensure that everyone is entitled to SSP regardless of how much they earn
• Increase the weekly rate of SSP to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the Real Living Wage.
• Ensure that workers who have been required by their employer to self-isolate are treated as at work and therefore receive full pay.
• Ensure that workers who do not have adequate bargained arrangements and have received health advice to self-isolate, are treated as sick for the purposes of contractual or statutory sick pay.
Additionally, workers who are required to take time off work for ‘caring’ purposes because for example their children have been sent home from school should also be paid full contractual pay during this period of time.
Given the potential for this health crisis to escalate rapidly, we would welcome swift and decisive action by the NI Executive in order to provide the security and safety that all workers should be entitled to.
With Best Regards
Assistant General Secretary