Workers who need to self-isolate because of coronavirus will be eligible for sick pay from the first day they are off, Boris Johnson has announced.
The prime minister told MPs that the rules would be changed as part of forthcoming emergency legislation to tackle the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
At the moment, sick pay is paid from the fourth day someone is absent from work due to illness.
The number of UK cases now stands at 85.
Earlier, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told Sky News that a serious outbreak in the UK is “almost certain” with “some deaths” expected.
Mr Johnson revealed the government’s plan for tackling coronavirus on Tuesday, and the issue dominated exchanges between him and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during PMQs.
Mr Johnson said those who self-isolate are “helping to protect all of us by slowing the spread of the virus”.
“If they stay at home and if we ask people to self-isolate, they may lose out financially,” he told the House of Commons.
“So, I can today announce that the health secretary will bring forward, as part of our emergency coronavirus legislation, measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the very first day you are sick instead of four days under the current rules, and I think that’s the right way forward.
“Nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing.”
The government has come under pressure in recent days to act to compensate employees who follow health advice and do not go into work.
According to its coronavirus blueprint, up to one in five workers could be off sick during a peak in cases.
Mr Corbyn welcomed the move, but pressed Mr Johnson on whether the change would apply to workers not entitled to statutory sick pay so they would not need to make the “terrible choice between health and hardship”.
The PM said he was “very much aware” of the issues confronting the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts, adding that “some of them will be entitled to statutory sick pay, a great many”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the announcement was an “important step forward”, but was still “not enough”, pointing out that two million workers “still don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay”.
“They can’t afford not to work. And statutory sick pay still isn’t enough to live on,” she said.
“Government must go further to ensure that no one is penalised for doing the right thing.”
CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie said: “Employers have a big role to play in ensuring that self-isolation is put into practice fairly. Making statutory sick pay available from day one is an important first step.”
The Resolution foundation think-tank said the move “goes some way to reassuring workers”.
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But its research director Laura Gardiner said the change would not help an estimated five million self-employed workers and around two million employees who earned less than £118-a-week, the minimum level to qualify for payments.
Under the government’s plan to tackle coronavirus, police could be reduced to just dealing with very serious crimes and maintaining public order, while the NHS could be closed to all but critical care.
Other key points include:
- Police would “concentrate on responding to serious crimes” if they lose a “significant” amount of staff to illness
- UK has stockpiles of medicines for the NHS, along with protective clothing and equipment for medical staff
- If coronavirus becomes widespread, there will be a focus on essential services for those “most at risk”
- The Ministry of Defence will provide support as needed
- There will be increased government communication with parliament, the public and the media
- Social distancing strategies could be implemented, which would include school closures, home-working, and reducing the number of large scale gatherings
- Non-urgent operations and procedures could be cancelled and hospital discharges monitored to free up beds
- Measures would come into place to help businesses with short-term cash flow problems
- A distribution strategy for sending out key medicines and equipment to NHS and social care patients
Virus Outbreak: Global Emergency – Watch a special Sky News programme on coronavirus at 6pm weekdays