Why the coronavirus could push the financially vulnerable over the cliff edge - Greg Wright

When asked what was most likely to blow any Government off course, the former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is said to have replied, with characteristic sang-froid, “Events, dear boy, events.”

The coranavirus outbreak is a text book example of one such event; a problem of potentially colossal scale, which has no easy solution. It shows how even the most sophisticated economy can be thrown into chaos by the spread of disease.

For some, the prospect of self-imposed isolation or being forced to spend weeks working from home is far from terrible. Many people might actually find it liberating.

Sign up to our Business newsletter

Sign up to our Business newsletter

But what about people with stretched finances, whose job must involve travel or human contact? If they cannot work, they do not get paid. How will they cope with a sudden loss of income? Badly, is the answer in most cases.

Businesses are right to be concerned about the spread of the coronavirus. Photo: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

This point was underlined when I chatted to a representative from StepChange, the debt charity, which has carried out research into the long term financial health of people who use its services.

“The good news is that most of our clients are making progress on their debts 15 months after first speaking to us, and on average their wellbeing has improved too,’’ the spokesman said.

“Financial resilience is more of a challenge – most people are still on a financial knife-edge, so remain vulnerable to income shocks that could knock them off track again.”

“It seems particularly timely to reflect on this when there’s a lot of focus on how people might get through a period of not working or not being paid in full if the coronavirus threat turns into a widespread reality.

“The current concern really sheds a light on how precariously balanced many people are, which is entirely in line with what we see, as people more often than not tip over into problem debt as a result of an income knock.”

The charity believes that one possible solution would be for the Government to show greater forbearance towards people who see a drop in income. It could, for example, call for a temporary halt on council tax payments, and consider introducing a hardship fund for people affected.

The trade union, Unite, has said the Government must introduce emergency legislation to ensure that the millions of workers not entitled to statutory sick pay receive it from day one if they can’t work because of coronavirus.

Unite also wants workers who must self-isolate to be fully paid for the time they take off to stop the disease spreading.

Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “This is a vital public health issue - the state must intervene with emergency legislation to protect workers where collective agreements or statutory protection doesn’t exist.

“Without decisive intervention workers simply won’t stay at home – they can’t afford to.

“Government must also intervene with respect to gig workers, the ‘self-employed’ and the millions who don’t have rights to statutory sick pay or are simply already too poor to qualify.”

An estimated two million people currently do not earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay, and another union, UNISON warns many could lose earnings unless rules are changed.

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Employees on zero-hours or precarious contracts are already on low wages.

“They now face financial hardship if they have to self-isolate.”

Given the choice between taking time off sick or self-isolating , some “gig” economy workers might take a gamble and report for duty. If they don’t they will not be able to feed and clothe their family. The wholesale loss of employment rights for millions of workers has made people nervous. We live in an age when many people are dogged by job insecurity.

The coronavirus could push vulnerable workers over the cliff edge. Unions are right to flag up concerns about the fate of workers who have no right to sick pay.

But the potential solution comes at a heavy cost, to both the taxpayer and the private sector.

That’s why we must hope that the outbreak is contained and we are never faced with the worst case scenario. Something to ponder the next time you wash your hands.