Cutting sick pay for unvaccinated employees – what do you think?

I’ve been really concerned this week that some major employers are cutting sick pay for unvaccinated employees to the statutory minimum. ITV reports how companies like Next, Morrisons and Ikea are only going to pay employees who have to self-isolate Statutory Sick Pay of only £96.35 per week, whereas those who have been vaccinated will get their usual pay. And the majority of affected employees will be the lowest paid.

In England, if you are a close contact of someone with Covid, you don’t have to self isolate if you are fully vaccinated. You just need to take daily lateral flow tests. However, if you have not been vaccinated and there are no medical reasons why you can’t be, you have to isolate for ten days. If you do not do so, you could be fined £1000. The rules are set out here.

I don’t agree with employers making these sorts of value judgements about an employee’s liability for their own condition. That is a rabbit hole we really do not want to go down because it could end up in some really nasty places. Broken your leg while hillwalking? Imagine your employer telling you you could have avoided that and they are only going to pay you SSP.

I also don’t think that it is productive in any way to essentially try to starve people into submission, especially when that is not likely to work. A BMJ article suggests that coercion might just exacerbate existing divisions and mistrust without actually resulting in higher vaccination levels.

I could not be any more pro-vaccine, and, yes, I think that if you don’t get vaccinated then you are being really selfish, unless there is a medical reason why you can’t. The vaccine clearly saves lives. This time last year we had 37,715 patients in hospital with Covid, 3,854 requiring ventilators.  1295 people died with Covid on 16 January 2021. Today, we have 19729 in hospital and 777 requiring ventilators. 270 people died on 14th, the last day for which we have figures. While today’s numbers are still high enough, and show that this virus is still very nasty, you can see the difference vaccines make.

But there is another reason, a more self-interested one, that I don’t want people’s sick pay restricted. It’s hardly going to encourage unvaccinated people to stick by the rules and self isolate. That makes it more likely that they will go to work, spread the virus and put the rest of us at risk. And that makes it less likely that I will want to go anywhere near those businesses.

What do you think?

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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22 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 16th Jan '22 - 4:34pm

    Interesting article. If employers were penalising workers for getting ill, that would be completely unacceptable. However, that is not what is happening. Workers who are vaccinated and are close contacts of someone with covid will be able to continue working while those who are close contacts but chose not to get vaccinated will be unavailable for work. While workers may be entitled to make their own choices as to whether to get vaccinated, I don’t see why employers should have to pay the costs of those choices.

  • Jack Nicholls 16th Jan '22 - 4:40pm

    Strongly agree with pretty much your entire analysis. One can be very pro-vax and still thoroughly mandate-sceptic. Sick pay is a right or it is nothing – unwise decisions should not be part of the equation. Imagine if we had this policy for people who were HIV-positive? Furthermore, it is the apogee of a liberal worldview to understand the difference between personal disapproval and reduction of rights on the basis of things of which you happen to disapprove without further justification. Well said Caron, as usual 🙂

  • I fully support this move by employers, assuming they allow exemption for those with valid medical reasons for not being vaccinated. (I limit that purely to medical reasons, not religious reasons, since in my view religion does not authorise you to endanger others.)

    Those who choose not to be vaccinated impose all kinds of cost on the rest of society. Those costs should be pushed back onto the individuals themselves. I would also surcharge them for NHS medical treatment if that were practical.

    The US Supreme Court decided almost a century ago that the state could penalise people who refused to receive smallpox vaccine. I consider that the right decision.

  • Mick Taylor 16th Jan '22 - 5:15pm

    The world is sadly full of people who demand rights, but refuse to accept responsibilities. I have just tested negative after 10 days, having been infected by an unvaccinated relative over Christmas. I take the view that any decision in life has consequences, and the decision about Covid19 vaccination is no different. Anyone who refuses vaccination has to accept the consequences of that decision.
    JS Mill’s classic text “On Liberty” [which the late Jo Grimond said that all Liberals should read annually] argues for complete freedom as long as the actions of the free person do no harm. Anyone who is not vaccinated is potentially choosing to do harm to others by infecting them. I have tried to explain to people who are not vaccinated that it’s not about them, it’s about their effect on others, which can be fatal in some cases.
    What these employers are saying to those who work for them is “you have complete freedom to remain unvaccinated, but we’re not paying for the consequences.”
    I think that is completely in line with Liberal principles and should be supported.

  • Jack Nicholls 16th Jan '22 - 5:35pm

    I’m mindful of the refreshed comments policy, so this will be my last point here; for those who support this idea, where – medically, actuarially or philosophically – would you draw the line?

  • I agree with most of the commentators thus far, why should an employer and thus the consumers through (increased costs) foot the bill for a person who choses to remain unvaccinated?
    An unvaccinated person at present has to self isolate for 10 days if they are a close contact of a confirmed positive case. Why should the employer keep meeting these costs possible multiple times a year due to the choices of the employee?
    We dont know how long this pandemic is going to go on for before it is classified as endemic, what new variants will come our way in the future and the trouble they will pose.
    There must be some consequence of choice for those who remain steadfast in their views on vaccinations while the rest of us are doing all we can to protect ourselves, our families, communities and economies.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 16th Jan '22 - 6:09pm

    Thanks for all the interesting comments. I can see how it is possible to come to both views on this using liberal principles. I guess the line for me is that it is compelling people to put a substance into their body against their will in order to get the wherewithal to eat and that really doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

    If we think it is ok as a society (and I do) to impose greater self isolation restrictions on people who are unvaccinated, then I think we need to make sure that they aren’t financially penalised to the extent that they can’t provide themselves with the basics as a result. Maybe what we need is a decent level of SSP so that employers aren’t bearing the brunt of this.

    I do absolutely get what Mick says about the harm principle and, if I were you, I’d be absolutely raging if that relative wasn’t medically able to have the vaccine. Hope you and Ruth weren’t too ill with it and you’re both ok now.

  • Peter Watson 16th Jan '22 - 6:18pm

    Importantly here, those employees affected are still able to receive the statutory sick pay to which they are entitled.
    When it comes to more generous sick pay from employers – something that not everybody benefits from anyway – then I agree that it is difficult to draw a line beyond which the employer should not be obliged to pick up the tab for an employee’s choices, but that does not mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done, and as far as I am aware, it already is done in many cases without Lib Dems getting excited, e.g. for injuries arising from participation in high risk sporting activities.

  • It’s not acceptable for employers to make medical judgments. If other employees are vaccinated why would it matter? Current vaccines are only claimed to offer 70% protection against symptomatic infection and that wanes fairly quickly. In any case, the meaningful distinction is between those with immunity (whether through vaccination or prior infection) and a tiny percentage with no immunity.

    While today’s numbers are still high enough, and show that this virus is still very nasty,…

    Omicron has less pathogenicity than a typical flu. Many in hospital have Delta variant which is more severe. Infections are vastly higher than a year ago due to infectivity of Omicron so the percentage in hospital is dramatically lower. Most Omicron admissions are incidental (admitted for something else) or people with comorbidities (so often not possible to say if admitted with or because of Omicron).

    It’s hardly going to encourage unvaccinated people to stick by the rules and self isolate. That makes it more likely that they will go to work, spread the virus…

    Almost all spreading is now by the fully-vaccinated. For those aged 18 to 70 the vaccinated (5,000.8 cases) now have over twice the rate of positive tests per 100,000 as the unvaccinated (2,198.2)…

    ‘COVID-19 vaccine surveillance report Week 1’ [6th. January 2022]:
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1045329/Vaccine_surveillance_report_week_1_2022.pdf

    In individuals aged greater than [18], the rate of a positive COVID-19 test is higher in vaccinated individuals compared to unvaccinated (Table 13).

  • Peter Watson 16th Jan '22 - 7:03pm

    @Jeff “For those aged 18 to 70 the vaccinated (5,000.8 cases) now have over twice the rate of positive tests per 100,000 as the unvaccinated (2,198.2)”
    I confess to being quite surprised by that, though in the table to which you refer, it explicitly states, “Comparing case rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated populations should not be used to estimate vaccine effectiveness against COVID-19 infection” and “Unadjusted case rates among persons vaccinated have been formatted in grey to further emphasise the caution to be employed when interpreting these data.”

    However, without any such caveat attached to the data, and especially in the context of sick pay, the same table also shows that unvaccinated people between the ages of 18 and 70 are between two and seven times as likely to require hospitalisation, so those choosing not to vaccinate do appear to be putting themselves at greater risk of being seriously ill and absent from work.

  • Peter Watson 16th Jan ’22 – 7:03pm:
    I confess to being quite surprised by that,…

    It’s because most of the unvaccinated have had a prior infection which typically confers at least as good immunity (see South Africa). Most of the unvaccinated are children, young, or ethnic minorities (less than half vaccinated).

    ’COVID-19 vaccine surveillance report Week 2’ [13th. January]:
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1046431/Vaccine-surveillance-report-week-2-2022.pdf

    …98.7% of the adult population now have antibodies to COVID-19 from either infection or vaccination compared to 24.1% that have antibodies from infection alone.

    “Comparing case rates … should not be used to estimate vaccine effectiveness…”

    We’re not doing that.

    ‘The hyper-transmissible SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant exhibits significant antigenic change, vaccine escape and a switch in cell entry mechanism’ [December 2021]:
    https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_829360_smxx.pdf

    In this study, we demonstrate both markedly decreased neutralisation in serology assays and real-world vaccine effectiveness in recipients of two doses of vaccine, with efficacy partially recovered by a third mRNA booster dose. We also show that immunity from natural infection (without vaccination) is more protective than two doses of vaccine but inferior to three doses.

    …unvaccinated people between the ages of 18 and 70 are between two and seven times as likely to require hospitalisation.

    Percentage Delta? Duration? Oxygenation? Ventilation? Vaccination is generally a good plan.

  • @Jeff

    “It’s not acceptable for employers to make medical judgments. ”

    They’re not making medical judgments, they are making economical ones, which I am sure that they are entitled to do.

    It is the Government that is making medical “health policies” which affects unvaccinated people, telling them that they need to isolate for 10 days if they have been in close contact with a confirmed case. Surely a business is entitled to then act in relation to a public health policy that affects their business.

    Coronavirus isn’t going anywhere, they will be many more variants down the line, we were fortunate with omicron that it mutated to be more infectious, however less deadly due to replicating in the upper respiratory tracts rather than lower ones which can be more deadly. We do not know what future variants are going to do, if we get ones that are more transmissible and spreads quickly and replicates in lungs, then we could be in a whole host of trouble.
    We need to be dispelling the lies and misinformation spread by the anti-vaxers, reach out more to the harder to reach communities, but people do need to realise and accept when it is a public health matter, if you exercise that right not to be vaccinated, that can indeed come with some consequences, like the ones mentioned in this article

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 17th Jan '22 - 6:30am

    Caron, I agree that the decision by these employers is unacceptable. There is a very worrying trend towards vilifying unvaccinated people, and suggesting that they should be punished.
    I suspect there is no real scientific justification for imposing different self isolation rules on unvaccinated people. After all, we know that fully vaccinated people can catch and transmit the virus too. It seems significant that if someone has a medical reason why they should not be vaccinated, then they are exempt from having to self isolate if a family member has Covid, just as they would be if they were fully vaccinated. This exemption seems to indicate that the government know that it is really quite safe to allow an unvaccinated person not to self isolate, and that the different rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people are really all about punishing unvaccinated people for their choice.
    It would be totally unacceptable if people were to feel forced into being vaccinated for financial reasons.
    Caron, I disagree with your comment that you think “If you don’t get vaccinated then you are being very selfish”. That argument might have more validity if the vaccine stopped transmission altogether, but it does not. (It is true that it probably does somewhat reduce transmission, but the data on this seems uncertain). Some people have a genuine fear of vaccines, and it is cruel to accuse them of selfishness because of this

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Jan '22 - 7:42am

    @Catherine Jane Crosland
    “There is a very worrying trend towards vilifying unvaccinated people, and suggesting that they should be punished.”

    They’re not being punished – they’re being expected to take responsibility for their own decision not to be vaccinated.

    “we know that fully vaccinated people can catch and transmit the virus too.”

    But are less likely to do so than unvaccinated people. And a great deal less likely to take up significant hospital resources (delaying other peoples’ non-Covid treatment) if they are infected. Doesn’t that matter to you?

    “It would be totally unacceptable if people were to feel forced into being vaccinated for financial reasons.”

    Why should an employer be expected to take financial responsibility for an employee who, for a period of time, cannot work for them because of having to self-isolate because of their own decision not to be vaccinated?

  • Tristan Ward 17th Jan '22 - 7:56am

    To take Caron’s argument to it’s extreme, it seems to say that if an employee is ill, the employer must always contribute full pay until that employee gets better. That of course would be disastrous for small business.

    It follows that neither extreme (full pay when ill always and and no pay when ill always) is acceptable

    For what it’s worth an employee who broke his leg and did no work for a month should not expect to get full pay from me for that month if the health of my business and personal income depended on it. What would other people here do?

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 17th Jan '22 - 10:11am

    @ Tristan,

    Firstly, take out critical employee insurance.

    But, if your hypothetical employee broke his leg on company business or, perhaps, through corporate negligence? Or was the victim of attack, or sheer bad luck?

    Your argument suggests that the “balance of power” between employer and employee should be very much tilted in favour of the employer, with little sense of obligation on the part of the latter. And, in a competitive industry, you might find that your ability to recruit and retain is weakened, which might be disastrous for a business of any size.

  • >“It’s not acceptable for employers to make medical judgments.”
    Some people have obviously led sheltered lives.
    Most of my employment contracts contained a health clause and some statement about their liability in the event of long-term ill health, additionally, some employers made the passing of an annual medical check a condition of employment.
    One employer, mandated the passing of colour blindness and hearing tests for site workers, but then as their clients were the railways, this was understandable.

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Jan '22 - 10:45am

    @Mark Valladares
    “But, if your hypothetical employee broke his leg on company business or, perhaps, through corporate negligence? Or was the victim of attack, or sheer bad luck?”

    Corporate negligence seems a different matter altogether – it probably takes a long time to sort out but it’s surely a company’s responsibility.

    If the employee broke his/her leg while on company business it might well depend on the degree or otherwise of the employee’s negligence – e.g. when injury sustained while travelling to a business meeting.

    Victim of attack – criminal injuries compensation?

    Sheer bad luck – personal accident insurance? e.g. if employee breaks leg during amateur football match.

  • Peter Watson 17th Jan '22 - 11:33am

    @Mark Valladares “But, if your hypothetical employee broke his leg on company business or, perhaps, through corporate negligence? Or was the victim of attack, or sheer bad luck?”
    Or participated in a dangerous sport? Or was drunk/stoned?
    I don’t think it is illiberal in principle for an employer to draw a line somewhere. It might not even be illiberal for similar logic to apply to the safety nets of SSP or NHS treatment but that’s a much wider and more difficult debate!
    Similarly, in the example of critical employee insurance or income protection insurance, it doesn’t seem illiberal in principle for exclusions or more expensive premiums to reflect the risk being taken on by the insurance company when it comes to actions or decisions by an employee which cause their absence.
    However we can certainly quibble over where that line should be, and it is easy to imagine how it could become very illiberal indeed. I think the only question for this thread really is which side of the line covid vaccination falls.

  • Tristan Ward 17th Jan '22 - 12:36pm

    @Mark Valladares,

    I think most critical illness policies only cover death and terminal illness rather than the broken leg for a month and so this doesn’t (probably) cover the situation we are talking about.

    We are really thinking about health insurance o for the employee that pays out wages while the employee can’t work (for whatever reason).

    I have just looked at what Legal and General are quoting. For a 55 year old office worker, a payout of £2,000 a month for no more than 12 months per claim costs £55 a month for a non smoker. That’s a tax deductible cost to the business of £660 a year. It seems likely that insurance will not be available for some people, and different prices for different kinds of workers (smokers? vaccine refusers) at different risks.

    I agree an employer might want to carry this cost this cost as an employee benefit (taxable in the employee’s hands of course). It’s effectively a pay rise.

    Should we be encouraging such paternalistic behaviour on the part of employers, or asking employees to make their own decisions about whether they want to protect themselves?

    Other options might be to look to the state by increasing the statutory sick pay (taxes go up or other services provided by the state suffer), or even Universal Basic Income???

    Naturally if the broken leg is the fault of the employer, the employee should be compensated (but that is not the situation under discussion).

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 17th Jan '22 - 1:39pm

    @ Tristan,

    “Should we be encouraging such paternalistic behaviour on the part of employers, or asking employees to make their own decisions about whether they want to protect themselves?”

    Should we be interfering in the right of employers to look after their staff by making more generous provision than is legally required? You do give the impression that your desire for freedom is somewhat lopsided rather than balanced.

  • Tristan Ward 17th Jan '22 - 2:40pm

    @ Mark Valladares

    “Should we be interfering in the right of employers to look after their staff by making more generous provision than is legally required”.

    Certainly not. I have not suggested this. I said employers may well want to carry extra costs of ensuring ill employees are paid – (by insurance) – for exactly the reasons you put forward about recruitment and so on.

    My original draft (reduced because of the word limit) included a line to the effect that I think there may well be a case for such health insurance to be compulsory and paid for by employers – ie the paternalistic solution. As I pointed out that has difficulties because the employer exercises power over the employee by deciding on what the employment remuneration should be spent.

    Other solutions to the problem of ensuring people have income include:
    The employees taking the risk themselves (by not insuring), having the state do it (statutory sick pay being higher) and Universal basic income.

    I notice you have not said what you would do in the hypothetical situation (apart from having the foresight of putting insurance in place before the event which is a good solution provided the business (or someone else) is willing to pay the cost!

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