Test, Trace and Forgotten

Community’s investigation reveals the extent of the impact a lack of sick pay has had on self-employed workers since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. See the full report below and support our campaign to deliver Sick Pay for the self-employed here.

Executive summary and recommendations 

  • 57% of self-employed applications for the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment were rejected. Across the local authorities we surveyed, that amounts to at least £24,439,000 denied to self-employed applicants.
  • 1 in 5 applications for the self-isolation scheme came from the self-employed.
  • The number of self-employed workers claiming Universal Credit increased by 270% during the pandemic.
  • The high demand from self-employed workers for access to the Test and Trace Support Payment demonstrates the urgent need for government to deliver on sick pay for the self-employed

Introduction 

During the COVID-19 pandemic it became abundantly clear that the social security net provided for the self-employed is insufficient, yet the steps taken during this crisis show that a different approach is possible.

Out of the 32.5 million people in work in the UK, as of December 2021 there were around 4.18 million self-employed workers (numbers peaked at over five million pre-pandemic). Many of them are the most highly skilled, entrepreneurial and creative individuals in the UK. With the pandemic exacerbating the difficult situation faced by many self-employed workers, and the precarious side to self-employment, it is unsurprising that the number of people working as self-employed declined. In Community and Prospect’s inquiry into the future of self-employment, we found 46% of self-employed workers said they were less likely to continue in self-employment due to their experience of the pandemic, with 18% unsure[1].

In addition to almost two million low paid workers who are deprived of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP), none of these millions of self-employed workers can access sick pay either (£96.35 per week for up to 28 weeks). Although sole traders can apply for a lower rate of Employment Support Allowance for extended periods off work due to illness, many of the UK’s most vulnerable workers are excluded from significant financial support when unwell.

Since October 2020 until 24 February 2022,[2] a £500 payment known as the Test and Trace Support Payment (since August 2021, £750 in Wales) has been made to workers on low incomes who are asked to self-isolate and are either employed or self-employed. Specific conditions had to be met to get the payment, such as a person contracting coronavirus or because they have been a close contact of someone who had, or they could not work from home and would have lost income by self-isolating or staying at home to care for a child.

This payment provided a lifeline to many people on low incomes, including the self-employed, supporting them to be able to do the right thing and self-isolate, albeit there was concern that it failed to meet the demand for support[3]. The payments demonstrably showed the difference financial support can make to people when they are temporarily unable to work.

To understand the scale of the demand, and the difference the support payment made to thousands of working people, particularly the self-employed, we have conducted research and analysis of the scheme with local authorities across the country. This is the largest analysis to date of the scheme, and particularly the concerning impact on thousands of self-employed workers.

“Self-employed are the UK’s forgotten through the pandemic.”

Our analysis of local authorities’ payments of the Test and Trace Support Payment to the self-employed shows that not everyone who needed it got this crucial support, with over half of their applications being rejected. This report also shares members’ stories about their experiences of receiving the £500 payment, the difference it made, and the challenges faced by those who weren’t supported to stay away from work whilst sick.

In a recent survey of self-employed Community members, 8 out of 10 said that they were worried that they would not be able to afford the bills or pay for basic necessities without sick pay in the future.

Further to this, the number of self-employed workers claiming Universal Credit skyrocketed during the pandemic, showing the financial precariousness of much of this workforce and the challenges that the pandemic has caused for those who work for themselves.

“The pandemic demonstrated the precarious side to self-employment and the desperate need for a safety net for the self-employed.”

The critical question for policy makers and the government to ask itself now is this: if it’s the right thing to do when someone is sick with coronavirus, isn’t it also the right thing to do when someone is sick with any condition? This report shows other countries have shown us there is a way to support the self-employed through periods of illness. Our own government has shown during the pandemic that they can spring into action and create support systems such as the Test and Trace Isolation Support Payment, when they have the will to do so.

Our analysis leads to only one conclusion: the government must deliver sick pay for the self-employed.

Test and Trace Support Payment: key findings 

More than half of self-employed applications have been rejected

The success rate of all the self-employed applications in our sample was 42.83%. This varied amongst local authorities[4].

Members who had been rejected described feelings of frustration and hopelessness in trying to balance doing the right thing against the need to keep the lights on and food on the table.

“I have no idea what the future will hold. I worry that the pandemic will continue indefinitely. I worry that my clients will stop hiring people like me. I worry that the business I have built up over the last ten years will cease to support me and my family.”

The most common barrier to accessing the grant was not meeting the income thresholds. This suggests those who earned just over the threshold despite still being on low incomes were in significant need of support.

The next most common barrier was not being able to provide the test and trace grant number, and not providing the required evidence. This suggests that the overly onerous application criteria set by the government was preventing people who needed support from their local authority from accessing it, and that the test and trace system provided a significant barrier with its bureaucratic allocation of test and trace numbers. Clearly barriers were needed to prevent fraud, but this friction stands in stark contrast with the ease of acquiring government support through other schemes such as business support schemes.

Local authorities also noted that self-employed workers struggled to demonstrate evidence that they had lost income, suggesting a blunt approach to determining eligibility.

Flaws with the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme have been widely reported, such as the recently self-employed who had been unable to demonstrate loss of earnings because they lacked a history of tax returns to prove it.

“Whilst other self-employed people could apply for Government grants, the fact that I’d been self-employed for just under a year meant that I was ineligible for these schemes.”

The figures from local authorities do not provide sufficient evidence to draw a firm conclusion about exactly how applications were evaluated. Some local authorities allowed newly self-employed workers to for instance, provide an estimate for their first three months of trading, if they couldn’t provide a tax return. However, the preponderance of “income” as a reason for rejection suggests that similar challenges affected this scheme as had affected the SEISS.

The chart below shows a word cloud analysis of the most common reasons for rejection given by local authorities.

1 in 5 Test and Trace Support Payment applications came from the self-employed

Our research found that that 21% of applications to the Test and Trace Support Payment from the authorities who responded were self-employed[5]. This is larger than would be expected based on the share of the population, which for the self-employed stood at 15.3% in 2020, before the pandemic[6]. The self-employed were thus significantly over-represented in applying to the scheme, likely because of the lack of alternative sources of support.

In some local authorities, more than 40% of support payment applications came from the self-employed. This is likely due to many employees being able to access other schemes, such as statutory or company sick pay, which meant they did not need additional support from the scheme, or because the self-employed are more likely than employees to be on low incomes. Recent research by the Trust for London found that those in low paid self-employment are 50% more likely to be living in low-income households than low-paid employees[7].

“Thousands of self-employed workers relied on the £500 self-isolation payment because there is no other safety net available to them. The over four million self-employed do not get sick pay. Millions of those workers can’t afford to take sick leave because they can’t afford to turn down the work. It’s clear the self-employed urgently need sick pay to support them.”

There was a 270% increase in the self-employed using Universal Credit between March 2020 and October 2021.

Data from the Department for Work and Pensions shows that the percentage of the entire Universal Credit case load that was supporting the self-employed rose from 5% to 11% over the same period.

Indeed, in May 2020, 16% of all Universal Credit caseload was supporting the self-employed.

This data tells a story of a group of self-employed workers with little financial security, who were seriously harmed by the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.

Many self-employed workers lacked the financial resilience to survive a period of self-isolation, and the isolation grants were a lifeline for these people and their families.

Demand for the Test and Trace Support Payment is rising

The need for the self-isolation payment has not disappeared. The data shows that following a spike in July 2021, and a partial lull in the autumn, demand has again increased for self-isolation payment, as the pandemic spreads and more people need to self-isolate. Whilst not all local authorities were able to report for January, many of those that did report higher claim rates even for a partial month.

If the UK is to ‘learn to live with’ repeated COVID-19 infections, then support for those who need to self-isolate to protect others is essential.

A sick pay scheme for the self-employed would help protect people and the economy not only from COVID-19 but from other diseases which may spread in the future.

We also note that given the pattern of the Test and Trace Payment Support Payment applications following the peaks of the pandemic, that these applications were likely to be genuine rather than fraudulent.

The Treasury wrote off almost 10 times that amount in fraudulent loans during the COVID-19 pandemic that it would cost to provide sick pay to every self-employed person in the country.

The costs of extending Statutory Sick Pay on its current terms to the self-employed would be vastly outweighed by the benefits to society. Firstly, it would reduce the spread of illness to others, reducing the overall amount of time spent away from work across the economy. Many people who cannot take sick leave are forced into an impossible choice between spreading diseases to pay the bills or staying at home and going into financial hardship.

Secondly, it would improve the financial resilience of household finances. TUC research found that 21% of workers forced to self-isolate but unable to work from home had to raid their savings and 1 in 10 struggled to pay their bills or went into debt[8]. Thirdly, it would support innovation in the economy by encouraging people to remain self-employed. Community and Prospect research found that 46% of self-employed respondents were less likely to continue in self-employment due to their experiences in the pandemic[9].

We estimate that providing a statutory sick pay scheme on its current terms for all of the UK’s self-employed would cost £47.2 million. The cost of providing sick pay to every self-employed person in the UK would be less than 11% of the amount that Treasury wrote off in fraudulent loans during the COVID-19 pandemic[10].

The data shows a clear and convincing need for sick pay to be directed towards the self-employed.

Policy proposals

There have been emerging discussions around income protection and security for the self-employed during ill health. From the barriers and challenges with current schemes, to building on recommendations in the Taylor Review, as a recent report by the CIPD explores[11]. As part of our inquiry with Prospect trade union into the future of self-employment, 72% of self-employed workers believed the Government should have responsibility for providing a safety net for the self-employed.

This section therefore explores the viability of existing schemes and draws on best practice from countries across Europe to urge the UK government to further explore and deliver on sick pay for millions of self-employed workers who need it.

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP)

Statutory Sick Pay is a fixed weekly payment paid by employers to those who are too sick to work. The amount is currently £96.35 per week[12] (increasing to £99.35 from 6 April 2022).

The payment is only paid to those who earn at least £120 per week. The scheme usually only kicks in after 3 days of sickness, though an exception was made during the coronavirus pandemic, so that if a person was sick with coronavirus or self-isolating, they became eligible for sick pay from day 1. Of course, the self-employed were excluded from this scheme.

This is a clear opportunity to learn the lessons of the pandemic and recognise the impossible choice that many people are placed into between staying home and protecting others and going into work.

In a recent report[13], IPSE (the Association for Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed) found that over half of freelancers surveyed (52%) do not feel support by the government, and three fifths of freelancers (58%) want government to extend Statutory Sick Pay to them.

Employment and Support Allowance (ESA)

The Employment and Support Allowance is a support payment that goes to those who are unable to work because of a health condition.

One potential method of ensuring that self-employed workers are supported to take time away from work when they are unwell is to increase access to ESA. Whilst this would have positive effects there are a few barriers which mean that we advocate statutory sick pay as a better policy solution:

  • It is conditional on your national insurance record meaning it would again exclude the newly self-employed and does not suit the reality of self-employment where there are often gaps between projects.
  • The payment is very low, even lower than statutory sick pay at up to £74.70 per week for over 25’s and just £59.20 for under 25s.
  • It has seven waiting days built it and takes several weeks to apply.
  • It is designed for long term health conditions rather than short to medium term illness.

How are other countries supporting their self-employed workforce?

It is not impossible to pay sick pay to the self-employed. There are several schemes internationally which offer support, however sickness protection for the self-employed varies widely across countries, particularly in the EU regarding voluntary or compulsory insurance and benefits entitlement. The most generous schemes, as demonstrated by Eurofound[14], are available in Denmark, Finland and Sweden where the self-employed had the same social protection as employees.

In Finland, the self-employed are entitled to a sickness benefit, which is income-related but without ceilings. It is a similar system for employees, but the self-employed can determine the level of social security contributions[15].

In Denmark, again the system is the same for employees and self-employed, however entitlements for sick leave are slightly different for self-employed workers. They receive a sick pay benefit calculated based on their earnings (with the same maximum earnings applied to employees)[16].

And in Sweden, contributions are paid for health insurance and sick leave, and sick pay allowance is calculated on annual income, however the system is designed for permanent employees with complicated rules[17].

Elsewhere, research by Eurofound[18] further demonstrated that there is precedent for a social security system specific for self-employed workers.

For example, in Belgium, the self-employed are covered for sickness benefit but often for a shorter period or through only a flat rate, in Austria paid sick leave exists (only mandatory for those registered with a chamber of commerce), and in France sickness benefit can be obtained after one year of insurance.

In Germany, the self-employed can opt in and choose between statutory and private health insurance. In both cases, they pay higher social contribution rates than salaried workers. For sickness benefits and accidents at work, insurance is compulsory[19].

In Luxembourg, waiting periods exist for the self-employed for sickness benefits, requiring the self-employed to accumulate contributions for a set period[20].

In Portugal, the sickness benefit is granted to the self-employed for a maximum of 365 days (compared with 1095 days for employees), with limitations, under the general social protection scheme. If their income is under a specific threshold, their contributions are voluntary[21]. Although the self-employed are subject to a waiting period of 30 days (3 days for employees).

Across other countries, there is also evidence that the self-employed are also supported by universal elements in social protection systems. In Estonia, the self-employed are covered by sickness benefits which are calculated from the taxes paid, and with limitations[22].

Some countries provide options for self-employed workers to voluntarily opt-in to insure themselves to be covered for sick leave such as in Poland, or in the Czech Republic where paid sick leave coverage is provided on a voluntary opt in basis[23]. In Cyprus, the self-employed can opt to pay higher contributions, up to a certain maximum, with a waiting period of nine days to receive sick pay[24].

Across the EU, models vary. The self-employed are required to be insured only in 16 Member States (BE, DK, CY, EE, FI, FR, HR, HU, LU, LV, MT, PT, RO, SI, SK, and SE), and they are subject to compulsory insurance as well as different contributory periods[25]. In some countries the self-employed subscribe to voluntary insurance schemes which may be statutory or private (e.g., BG, CZ, EE, ES, PL, LT)[26].

Outside of such sickness benefit schemes across countries, many also introduced pandemic specific support (such as the Test and Trace Support Payment) that are limited to isolation or the Covid virus.

Although it must be noted that there is low coverage across many of the sickness benefit schemes across countries, what each of these examples show, however, is that offering sick pay provision to the self-employed is not impossible in the UK and would be an important step forward in providing adequate levels of social protections to every worker.

Conclusion

There is an urgent need to expend our social safety net to support self-employed workers in times of need, such as sickness during a dangerous and contagious pandemic.

Over a number of years, we have seen more and more people in the UK choose self-employment. It is clear we cannot continue to exclude this diverse section of our workforce from our social security systems that are in place to support all of us in times of need.

The pandemic clearly demonstrated that the health of our communities depends on the ability of individuals to stay home and rest when they are ill. Denying the self-employed viable sick pay and financial support when needing to self-isolate means many are forced to make an impossible choice between their health and livelihood.

We rely on the creativity and ambition of our self-employed workforce to drive our economy and local economies forward, but at the same time we are punishing these workers by denying them access to our social safety net.

It is in the economic and social interests of the United Kingdom to deliver on a sick pay scheme for the self-employed, as if supported, the self-employed will continue to drive and support our economy.

Indeed, we believe the costs of not acting are far greater, not only in terms of lost working time, innovation, and productivity, but also because if this action is not taken, even more self-employed workers will be driven out of self-employment altogether. The millions of self-employed workers deserve better.

report developed and written by Kate Dearden, Anna Mowbray and Maya Ilany, contact rppu@community-tu.org.

Methodology

FOI Questions: 

  1. How many individuals have applied for the Self-isolation Support Grant of £500? Please include a month-by-month breakdown. 
  2. How many of those applications were made by self-employed people? 
  3. How many of applications made by self-employed people automatically received the payment due to being on existing benefit schemes such as Universal Credit, Pension Credit, Working Tax Credits, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, and Housing Benefit? 
  4. How many self-employed people who were not on benefits received the Self-Isolation Support Grant of £500? 
  5. How many applicants for the Self-Isolation Support Grant of £500 made by self-employed people were rejected and what were the top three reasons for rejection in these circumstances?  
  6. What was the total expenditure on Self-Isolation Support Grant of £500 made for self-employed people? 

Data collection for this report was carried out between December 2021 and February 2022. All local authorities in the UK were contacted and requested to provide data on the following questions. This included metropolitan borough councils, city councils, county councils, district councils and borough councils.

A total of 428 FOI requests were made. Of the responses received by the deadline, 129 were able to provide the requested data. In some cases, authorities were not able to provide a month-by-month breakdown of applications received but were able to provide total number of applications, and in these cases this data was used.

Most local authorities reported that they received their first applications for the scheme in October 2021, although a few reported having received the first applications in September.

Most had data available to December 2021, although a few could only provide data up to November 2021, and some were able to provide partial data for January 2022.

120 responses were from England, 4 from Scotland, and 5 from Wales.

The responding local authorities were a mixture of different types from different parts of the country. The map below illustrates the local authority who responded, coloured by the number of self-employed claims they received.

It should be noted that whilst the UK government set the scheme to provide claimants with £500, the Welsh Government increased the grant to £750 from the 7th of August 2021. A few other Councils also chose to provide additional funding to claimants, topping up the amount they received.

We also note that some councils had not yet processed some of the applications, and some payments had not yet been made even though applications had been approved.

This raises questions about what applicants were expected to do in between the time when they had to self-isolate and required the grant, and the time at which they actually received the payment, which have not been explored in this report.

Finally, we put in a second freedom of information request to the DWP, asking the following question:

Please can you provide the following information in a month-by-month breakdown from March 2020 to December 2021:

  1. The number of self-employed recipients of Universal Credit
  2. The share of self-employed recipients from the total group of Universal Credit recipients

Data was provided for the period between March 2020 and October 2021.

Contact rppu@community-tu.org.

Footnotes

[1] Community Union (2021), Inquiry into the future of self-employment report, Community Union www.community-tu.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Inquiry-into-the-future-of-self-employment-REPORT.pdf

[2] GOV.UK () www.gov.uk/test-and-trace-support-payment.

[3] TUC (2021), Sick pay that works, TUC www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/sick-pay-works

[4] This figure is based on 123 of the local authorities who were able to tell us both how many applications from the self-employed and how many had been successful.  

[5] This figure is based on 123 local authorities, as 6 of the local authorities could not tell us the total number of applications from the self-employed only the number that had been successful. 

[6] ‘Self-Employment – GOV.UK Ethnicity Facts and Figures’ <https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/work-pay-and-benefits/employment/self-employment/latest> [accessed 1 February 2022].

[7] Nida Broughton and Ben Richards, Tough Gig: Low Paid Self-Employment in London and the UK (London, 2016) <https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/publications/tough-gig-low-paid-self-employment-london-and-uk/>.

[8] The TUC, ‘Government Must Boost Self-Isolation Support to Get Control of “Spiralling” Covid-19 Cases’, 2021 <https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/government-must-boost-self-isolation-support-get-control-spiralling-covid-19-cases> [accessed 14 February 2022].

[9] Community; Prospect, Inquiry into the Future of Self Employment2021 <https://community-tu.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Inquiry-into-the-future-of-self-employment-REPORT.pdf>.

[10] The current sick pay scheme has a three-day waiting period and pays out £96.35 in a weekGOV.UK, ‘Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) : What You’ll Get – GOV.UK’ <https://www.gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay/what-youll-get> [accessed 1 February 2022].. The ONS reports that the average person takes 3.6 sick days per year ‘Sickness Absence in the UK Labour Market – Office for National Statistics’ <https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/sicknessabsenceinthelabourmarket/2020#data-sources-and-quality> [accessed 11 February 2022]. . IPSE estimates that there are 4086226 solo self-employed people in the UK ‘The Self-Employed Landscape Report 2020 | IPSE’ <https://www.ipse.co.uk/policy/research/the-self-employed-landscape/the-self-employed-landscape-report-2020.html> [accessed 11 February 2022].. Therefore 0.6*(96.35/5) *4086226 = £47,244,945. The treasury wrote off £4.3bn in fraudulent covid spending ‘Treasury Writes off £4.3bn in Covid Payments Lost to Fraud | News | The Times’ <https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/treasury-writes-off-4-3bn-in-covid-payments-lost-to-fraud-dfkxt5fr7> [accessed 11 February 2022].Thus, sick pay cost is just 10.98% of this.  

[11] CIPD. (2021) What should an effective sick pay system look like? CIPD recommendations for ensuring a financial safety net for workers during illness London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/sick-pay-reform_tcm18-104511.pdf 

[12] GOV.UK

[13] ‘IPSE and Community Call for Statutory Sick Pay for the Self-Employed as Research Shows Post-Pandemic | IPSE’ <https://www.ipse.co.uk/ipse-news/news-listing/ipse-community-call-sick-pay-for-self-employed.html> [accessed 2 March 2022].

[14] Eurofound (2017), Exploring self-employment in the European Union, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.  
https://www.european-microfinance.org/sites/default/files/document/file/exploring-self-employment-in-the-european-union.pdf

[15] Eurofound (2017), Exploring self-employment in the European Union, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.

[16] Slavina Spasova, Denis Bouget, and Bart Vanhercke, Sick Pay and Sickness Benefit Schemes in the European Union.European Commission. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion2016.

[17] Eurofound (2017), Exploring self-employment in the European Union, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. 

[18] Eurofound (2017), Exploring self-employment in the European Union, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg.  
https://www.european-microfinance.org/sites/default/files/document/file/exploring-self-employment-in-the-european-union.pdf

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Slavina Spasova, Denis Bouget, and Bart Vanhercke, Sick Pay and Sickness Benefit Schemes in the European Union.European Commission. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion2016.

[26] Ibid

       
           

Not a member?
Let’s get to know each other.