The government has rejected accusations it has hidden guidance stating that employees who are self-isolating can use the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
The Politico website reported the contents of leaked emails from civil servants in which the Treasury was described as “reluctant” to state that the furlough scheme could be used for self-isolating employees.
One of the emails allegedly stated: “Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation, but HMT [the Treasury] are reluctant to say this explicitly in guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be.” The emails acknowledged that people might avoid taking Covid tests because if they had to self isolate their incomes would drop to statutory sick pay level.
The allegations have brought a strong reaction from the Labour Party and unions, while ministers and Treasury spokespeople have responded by claiming the guidance does not seek to hide anything.
Many companies have understood that people who are self isolating are only entitled to statutory sick pay which requires employers to pay at least £96.35 per week when staff are off sick for more than four days. The furlough scheme pays 80% of an employee’s normal wages up to £2,500 per month.
Working in the pandemic
The government guidance states that the Job Retention Scheme “is not intended for short-term absences from work due to sickness” and “short term illness or self-isolation should not be a consideration when deciding if you should furlough an employee”. It adds that “If your employee is self-isolating or on sick leave … they may be able to get statutory sick pay.”
However, the guidance also states that if employers “want to furlough employees for business reasons and they are currently off sick, they are eligible to do so, as with other employees”.
The guidance also states employers “can furlough employees who are clinically extremely vulnerable or at the highest risk of severe illness from coronavirus”.
It adds: “It’s up to employers to decide if they will furlough these employees. An employer does not need to be facing a wider reduction in demand or be closed to be eligible to claim for these employees.”
A Treasury spokesperson said: “The guidance sets out that the scheme is not intended for short-term absences from work due to sickness or self-isolation. We have a specific support package in place for those self-isolating due to coronavirus, including one-off payments for those on low incomes.
“If an employer wants to furlough an employee for business reasons and they are currently off sick then they are eligible to do so as with other employees. This has been set out in guidance since April last year.”
Treasury minister Jesse Norman told LBC radio today he didn’t recognise the leaked emails. He said: “I haven’t seen any of that amongst officials myself. What I will tell you is that we’ve been thinking very seriously about self-isolating people and literally only in the last few days I’ve been taking through parliament a piece of legislation designed to exempt people in that situation from national insurance contributions.
“So this is an important part of our public health response and it’s one we’re taking very seriously.”
A further government source quoted today said furlough was not intended for people who were self isolating: “We would have had no mechanism to check who was furloughed for self-isolation reasons and the scheme would have been open to abuse.”
Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said that it was “shameful” that the furlough rules hadn’t been communicated properly.
She said: “The government were advised time and time again how crucial a proper self-isolation system is for curbing the spread of infection, and protecting people’s lives and livelihoods. It is shameful and reckless that the chancellor ignored professional advice and put countless people and workplaces at unnecessary risk when he had the opportunity to help.”
Rachel Harrison, national officer at the GMB union, said: “Suppressing advice on furlough eligibility during self-isolation is scandalous and incompetent.
“We need to know whether ministers approved the decision to withhold this advice. An urgent investigation should be established with accountability to parliament.”