At Boris’s sick pay cuts the Queen should be a real role model and rest

AS far as role models go, the Queen is pretty useful insofar as one may project on to her the qualities one finds most admirable, and see oneself pleasingly reflected back.

Whatever you might find exemplary, there is a way of persuading that Her Majesty is the very embodiment of that virtue.

This week, it’s been the righteousness of hard graft. The monarch has covid, and we all wish her a swift recovery, which might come swifter if she puts her feet up.

Not so. We were told early on that the Queen merely has mild cold-like symptoms and is still undertaking light duties. It was then announced that two virtual audiences scheduled to take place this week were being postponed but, it was emphasised, she is still working.

I imagine part of the decision to promote the Queen’s continued work schedule is motivated by a desire not to panic the populace. While yes, we could happily do without any more destabilising historic events such as a change of monarch for the first time in 70 years, it is particularly infantilising to imagine the public can’t cope with the notion Her Majesty needs a wee rest.

What’s more problematic about the line Buckingham Palace is taking on the Queen’s bout of covid, is that certain sections of the press have seized on it as a fine example of model behaviour.

My favourite headline was The Sun’s “HRH to WFH” as though the monarch doesn’t routinely work from home.

Plenty of people have had covid and have had the good fortune to be well enough to be able to keep going through it, but it shouldn’t be suggested that this is a noble endeavour. It’s fine to rest when you’re unwell and not virtuous to potentially prolong a bout of ill health so as to keep a perfect work record.

I say this in the spirit of utter rank hypocrisy, given I haven’t had a day off sick in years yet have had plenty of ailments I’ve toiled through. Stewarts don’t quit, neither through illness nor circumstance, and it’s a dreadful quality.

This week I was temporarily way-laid by being caught up in a bomb scare evacuation but never fear, I stayed up all night to catch up on the hours of work I missed thanks to some tool leaving his toolbox in the reception of Glasgow City Chambers.

I remember during the training for a volunteer job we were told never to cry off sick unless we had a limb hanging off. We were told a story about a man (or was it a woman? It hardly matters as I’m hoping it was apocryphal) who’d broken a leg the day before but still turned up in a taxi, the stookie barely dry.

This raised no eyebrows here. If you’re ambulatory, you’re capable of productivity. But this is a terrible motto.

The emphasis on hard graft becomes even more problematic still against a backdrop of plans from Boris Johnson (though isn’t everything problematic against a backdrop of plans from Mr Johnson) to scrap the £500 covid self-isolation grant and cut the immediate statutory sick pay that had been on offer to workers during the pandemic.

At some point early in the crisis we waxed poetic about how coronavirus was the great social leveller, equally targetting rich and poor.

This, of course, was never true. While all men and women and other may be infected with covid-19, socio-economic status was everything. It was whether you could work from home or not; it was whether your health was already robust enough to withstand the onslaught of the virus.

It was whether you could escape the city, were not in over-crowded living conditions, it was whether you had outdoor space to spend leisure time in.

There was, though, an attempt at solidarity. There was, too, a narrative about how, once this was all over, we were going to do things differently.

People had a new found sense of what was important and what they would prioritise. A very basic such thing was good health. So how quickly that resolve has been forgotten and replaced with a creeping narrative about the importance of economic output, whether that’s the suggestion that working from home is the preserve of the skiver or this week’s praise for working while ill.

Where now the solidarity of the pandemic? The drones must return to the hives.

The prime minister earlier this week praised the people of Germany, saying UK workers should try to be more like the workforce there where people don’t have a “habit of going into work when not well”.

In the grand scheme of Johnson clangers it’s fairly marginal but you wonder how the man in charge can say something so ignorant. In Germany statutory sick pay runs at 50% of full pay for 84 weeks. By contrast, the UK has one of the lowest sick pay set ups in Europe with statutory sick pay at £96.35 per week for 28 weeks.

And that’s only for certain members of the workforce. The Resolution Foundation has statistics showing that one in six workers in customer facing sectors in the UK get no statutory sick pay at all.

As the thinktank rightly says, sick pay performs a crucial public health role, particularly in the context of communicable disease.

Employers are largely favourable towards robust sick pay too – the workforce is not productive if it is unwell and so it makes basic good sense to provide a cushion that allows people to rest and recover and return to work performance-ready.

While government-backed private firms have been making a fortune from Covid-19 – PPE, as one example, testing as another – Westminster is removing money from ordinary workers vital to their continued wellbeing.

It’s a Conservative conumdrum, this notion that the rich work when you give them money and the working class only when you remove it.

A brave new reimagining of the world post-covid seemed inevitable for a time there, but the return to a flawed pre-pandemic normal now appears increasingly more likely. If we can’t come out of a pandemic with a new appreciation for the importance of good health and a scorn of the fetishisation of work, there seems little hope our ways will ever mend.

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