Rishi Sunak has again been urged to raise statutory sick pay for Covid-hit workers as Labour pointed out his own £180 coffee mug was worth the same as a fortnight of the benefit.
In Treasury Question Time in the Commons, Labour MP Andrew Gwynne slammed the £95.85-a week sick pay rate, which even health secretary Matt Hancock has admitted he could not live on.
The chancellor repeatedly refused calls from shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds to hike the payment, despite new evidence that it was a deterrent for many workers who fear that they will be left out of pocket if they self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms.
With Covid-19 cases soaring across the UK, government advisers have said that failure to comply with home quarantine has been helping to drive the increase as the virus spreads though communities.
Sunak first unveiled his “supermug” in photos taken on the eve of his summer statement to parliament.
On his desk was the Ember Travel Mug, reportedly a gift from his wife, Akshata Murthy, the daughter of a billionaire businessman, which retails for up to £179.95 online.
The reuseable cup allows users to “set an exact drinking temperature and keeps it there for up to three hours, so your coffee is never too hot, or too cold,” according to its advertising blurb.
Gwynne said: ”Tackling the Covid crisis relies on us all doing the right thing, but for many that’s just an impossible choice.
“Can the chancellor even begin to imagine how impossible that is, to bring up a family for a fortnight on about the same amount as the cost of his £180 hi-tech coffee cup?”
Shadow chief secretary Steve Barclay said that changes to the speed of payments of sick pay were among a “suite of measures” taken to help those in need. Sunak himself stressed that he had improved the flexibility of sick pay.
Dodds added afterwards: “I asked him [Sunak] to put himself in the shoes of a low paid worker who would be expected survive on £95 a week. The chancellor refused to answer that question.
“There does seem to be a lack of basic understanding of the reality of people’s lives right now. And that’s problematic because it’s hampering the effectiveness of test, trace and isolate at the very time when we really need it to be working, when infections are rising in the UK.”
New figures on Tuesday showed a rise in unemployment claimants to 2.7 million – a 120% rise since the lockdown started – and the number of people on payrolls had shrunk by nearly 700,000.
Sunak did hint at possible “creative” replacements for the furlough jobs support scheme, telling the cabinet that unemployment was his “number one priority”.
“Indefinitely keeping people out of work is not the answer,” he said. “But rest assured we will be creative in order to find ways of effectively helping people.”
New documents from the Sage (scientific advisory group for emergencies) committee found that less than 20% of people in England fully self-isolate when asked to do so, and that mass testing would be of no use unless this percentage rose.
The poorest are the least likely to self-isolate because they cannot afford to stay home, the scientists suggested: “Self-reported ability to self-isolate or quarantine is three times lower in those with incomes less than £20,000 or savings less than £100.”
Their discussions explicitly mentioned too that the payment level for statutory sick pay was “most often below gross pay” and that many in casual or zero hours jobs were ineligible anyway.