The chart that shows how bad your sick pay really is

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during the weekly question time debate at Parliament in London, Britain, January 19, 2022. UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO ALTERATIONS
Boris Johnson has confirmed plans to scrap the legal obligation for people with COVID to isolate, a move that experts warn could increase inequality (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

Boris Johnson has announced plans to abandon the legal requirement for people with COVID-19 to self-isolate.

The prime minister revealed last week he was axing Plan B measures - including scrapping mandatory face coverings, work-from-home guidance, and COVID passes for nightclubs and mass events.

He also signalled his intention to start treating COVID more like flu, telling MPs that instead of making self-isolation a legal requirement, people would be urged "to be careful and considerate of others".

Currently, anyone in England who has tested positive is required by law to stay at home for at least five full days, but that will be scrapped by March under the PM's new plans.

Experts have already raised concerns about the move, warning that the UK's "meagre" sick pay means poorer people will be far less able to stay at home if they fall ill from COVID. Yahoo News UK looks at why some have said this could have a “tragic” impact on the most vulnerable communities.

How much is sick pay in the UK?

The UK has one of the lowest rates of statutory sick pay in any developed nation, and is among the least generous in Europe, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Employees are entitled to £96.35 per week for 28 weeks if they are unable to work due to illness, amounting to a quarter of average earnings.

This is less than a third of the UK Real Living Wage – £346 per week – which is the estimated amount required to meet a person's needs based on the cost of living.

In 2018, the European Committee of Social Rights described the level as “manifestly inadequate” and “not in conformity” with the European Social Charter.

UK sick pay is some of the least generous in the developed world (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/OECD/ONS)
UK sick pay is some of the least generous in the developed world (Yahoo News UK/Flourish/OECD/ONS)

Not only is statutory sick pay low by international standards, the UK's system means that two million of the lowest paid workers are not eligible at all, according to the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Workers need to earn at least £120 a week to be eligible, with those falling below the threshold more likely to be women and those in insecure work.

Around a third of people on zero-hours contracts do not qualify for sick pay, compared to 6% of permanent employees, according to the TUC workers' union.

The self-employed are also excluded, as are people on parental leave.

What does this mean for COVID isolation?

Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee on behavioural science and professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, said that scrapping the law of self-isolation will create a divide where some people can afford to isolate if they have COVID, and others cannot.

This, he warned, could have a "tragic" impact on inequality.

Professor Reicher told Yahoo News UK: "What it means is that if you are poor, there's a pressure for you to go to work.

"Our sick pay is so meagre and if there is no other support, then you will have no choice. You will have to go into work whether you like it or not.

"And if you are privileged, and you're middle class, and you've got a job where you can work from home, you'll be able to [isolate]."

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 27, 2022: Commuters, some continuing to wear face masks, arrive at Waterloo station during morning rush hour as Plan B restrictions imposed in England to slow the spread of the Omicron variant have ended on January 27, 2022 in London, England. From today face coverings are no longer mandatory in shops and on public transport in England and vaccine certificates are not required to enter large venues. (Photo credit should read Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson has outlined plans to scrap the legal requirement to isolate after testing positive for COVID, suggesting the country should treat the virus more like flu. (Wiktor Szymanowicz/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

This, he says, undermines the argument that lifting COVID restrictions amount to a restoration of "freedom".

"It's freedom for a few, but it's absolute lack of choice for others," he said.

"Not only does that mean that the poor people are going to are going to have a worse time, not being able to stay home, of course if they go out, they're more likely to spread the infection, which is going to exacerbate the inequalities that already exist in terms of people getting ill."

The issue of poorer people struggling to isolate was first raised early on in the pandemic.

Rishi Sunak made some tweaks to sick pay, implementing from day one instead of day four, and extending help for the self-employed, but this falls far short of recommendations by unions and think tanks.

The changes are minimal compared to overhauls carried out in other countries in response to COVID.

Watch: Labour calls for improvements in order to 'live with' Omicron

Canada and New Zealand introduced weekly payments to people isolating with coronavirus. France, Ireland and Slovenia upped sick pay for COVID patients and waived waiting periods for payouts.

The UK introduced £500 means-tested payment for people required to isolate, but it was criticised for its limited scope. Two-thirds of people who applied for the help were rejected.

As well as issues with sick pay, the UK has a cultural lean towards working while ill, according to Professor Reicher.

He said: "In the UK, on the whole, if you've struggled into work, and you're not well, people treat you as a bit of a hero, like it shows your commitment and your loyalty.

"The point we need to make, the culture we need to create, is that if you struggle into work when under the weather, you're not helping your colleagues.

"You're not being heroic, you're not doing well, what you're doing is exposing them.

"That's always true, but being in the midst of a pandemic it's even more true."