Workers told to self-isolate due to coronavirus will receive sick pay from day one, the Prime Minister has announced, as England’s Chief Medical Officer warned that a UK epidemic is now “likely”.
Boris Johnson said people who self-isolate are “helping to protect all of us by slowing the spread of the virus” and did not deserve to be penalised financially.
He told the Commons that sick pay changes would be brought in as part of emergency coronavirus legislation.
“If they stay at home and if we ask people to self-isolate, they may lose out financially,” he told MPs.
“So, I can today announce that the Health Secretary will bring forward, as part of our emergency coronavirus legislation, measures to allow the payment of statutory sick pay from the very first day you are sick instead of four days under the current rules, and I think that’s the right way forward.
“Nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing.”
But TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the move did not go far enough.
She said: “Two million workers still don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay. They can’t afford not to work. And statutory sick pay still isn’t enough to live on.”
Earlier, England’s Chief medical Officer said community transmission of Covid-19 is undoubtedly already occurring throughout the UK.
Professor Chris Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “At this point in time we think it is likely, not definite, that we will move into onward transmission and an epidemic here in the UK.”
He told BBC Breakfast there could be a need to do “extreme things” to protect the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
But for most people, “this will be a mild or moderate disease, anything from a sniffle to having to go to bed for a few days, rather like with mild flu,” he said.
On the NHS, Prof Whitty said: “The NHS will always cope because the NHS is an emergency service which is very good at adapting to what it finds itself with.”
But he said if the UK sees a very large epidemic, “then it will put very high pressure on the NHS”, and there could be “several weeks which could be very difficult” for the health service and wider society.
Prof Whitty said retired doctors could be called back to work in the NHS, and existing doctors asked to switch jobs to relieve pressure.
Prof Whitty suggested that shutting down cities in the UK would not be effective now.
He said: “Closing cities is really only appropriate if you have a significant epidemic in one particular place and almost nothing anywhere else.
“It made sense for China to respond in the way it did but it would be very unlikely here… This is now in multiple places in Europe and around the world.”
His comments came as the London Book Fair at Olympia from March 10 to 12 was cancelled after major publishers pulled out amid coronavirus fears.
Elsewhere, two people in Carlisle have tested positive for Covid-19.
Both had recently returned from a trip to northern Italy. One is a member of healthcare staff at the Cumberland Infirmary.
Also on Wednesday, the Government launched a new campaign to encourage people to take simple steps to protect themselves.
You can help stop the spread of germs like #coronavirus.
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) March 3, 2020
A letter to NHS trusts has also been published telling them to ramp up their plans for tackling Covid-19, including seeing patients via video-link.
In the letter, NHS strategic incident director Professor Keith Willett and incident director Stephen Groves say acute wards may be used and coronavirus patients should be separated out.
It sets out that a level 4 NHS incident has been declared – the highest level – meaning extra steps were needed.
At least 53 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the UK, with an update expected on Wednesday afternoon.
The new Government publicity campaign seeks to drive home the message that regular hand-washing is the single most important action individuals can take in the fight against Covid-19.
It comes the day after the Government launched its “battle plan” to combat the outbreak with a warning that up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be off sick when the virus hits its peak.
The new adverts say hand-washing should be for 20 seconds, using soap and water or hand sanitiser.
Government scientific experts predict the UK’s coronavirus outbreak could last around four to six months.
Globally, there are now more than 90,000 cases worldwide with more than 3,000 deaths.