Imminent changes to Statutory Sick Pay: what HR needs to know

Workers have returned to offices
Workers have returned to offices - Image © Prostock-studio -

Imminent changes to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will take employers by surprise, and force them to have to decide whether Covid-19 is now just an illness like any other, according to experts.

But they also warn it will create a situation of employers having to choose between letting people with Covid-19 come to workplaces or whether they pay them for being off – even when they are not, officially speaking, ‘sick’.

As part of the government’s 'living with Covid' policy, from 24 March, current Covid-19 related statutory sick pay (SSP) rules will end.

Living with Covid:

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Over a third of Brits would go into work Covid-positive

Pre-pandemic rules will apply, meaning anyone unwell with coronavirus will only be paid SSP from the fourth day of their absence. Workers’ right to claim SSP due to sickness or self-isolating from the first day of absence will also come to an end.

“The changes mean that for those that are genuinely ill, Covid will now be treated like any illness,” said Katie Hodson, partner, and head of employment at SAS Daniels.

Speaking to HR magazine, she added:“Technically the SSP changes will mean that people who are asymptomatic are not technically ‘sick’ because SSP from day one no longer applies. The government is also saying there is no mandatory self-isolation, and people can now go into work.

“This will create significant confusion because the alternative to not paying people some form of sick pay will be having staff with Covid-19 coming into offices, potentially mixing with vulnerable people. Also, there is a question mark over whether businesses will be able to afford to pay a form of SSP, to stop employees coming in if they don’t want them to.”

According to David Sheppard, who leads the employment law team at Capital Law, all these machinations mean Covid still cannot be treated like a normal illness. He told HR magazine: “Employers still have health and safety obligations, and while the magnitude of risk has declined, they still need risk assessments.”

“What I think must happen is that companies may have to establish their own enhanced sick pay if they expect people to be off who are capable and willing to work. Contractually employees will have a right to be paid. If a company wants to enforce them to stay at home, they need to pay them.

“Whether it’s full pay, or SSP or enhanced SSP becomes the grey area. As government has stepped away, companies will be left filling the gap. They must now devise a full ‘post-Covid’ Covid policy.”

Bodies like the CIPD and TUC have long been campaigning for SSP to be widened and enhanced.

Last December, the CIPD’s What should effective sick pay look like? report concluded SSP needed to provide a better financial safety net for those with Covid-19.

Speaking to HR magazine Rachel Suff, senior employment relations adviser, CIPD, said: “The government wants a 'living with Covid' strategy, but if SSP doesn’t encourage the right behaviours and organisations don’t pay an enhanced form of SSP, people will be forced to come to work when they’re ill. This is especially the case given current pressures on the cost of living.”

She added: “We would urge all companies to go beyond SSP if they can, but it’s clear that in the longer term the whole model for who pays when people are off ill needs looking at. 

"At the moment, people are either sick, or not sick; there’s no provision for those with Covid – or any other illness – who can still work at home, but shouldn’t come into the office.”

Encouragingly the CIPD report revealed that two thirds (62%) of employers surveyed said SSP is too low and should be increased. The CIPD wants government to raise SSP to be at least equivalent to someone earning the National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage.

Ultimately, Julie Provino, former HRD and now founder of VeryHR, says responsible employers will be left with no choice but to pay people not to be at work.

Speaking to HR magazine she said: “HRDs I speak to all say the same thing: while we’re moving to the stage where Covid is treated as a normal illness, employees aren’t yet ready for this. There’ll be mass panic if people are allowed to return to work while having Covid still. Companies are going to have to pay people not to come in. The distraction, unrest, and upset from other staff will be too great to ignore.”

A second change that is also coming into force is the end of the Statutory Sick Pay Rebate Scheme (SSPRS). Employers will now only be able to make claims for their employees’ coronavirus-related absences or self-isolation absences that occur up to 17 March 2022.

Commenting on this, Kate Palmer, associate director of HR Advisory and consultancy at Peninsula told HR magazine: “The rebate scheme has been a lifeline to smaller businesses who have faced widespread absences owing to the pandemic.

“They will now have to take on the associated costs of SSP from day four of absence. They may also have consider offering enhanced sick pay to encourage employees to self-isolate.”