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As Coronavirus Hits U.K., Health Workers Fear Getting Sick, and Going Broke

March 2020 NYTimes; Every workday, Al-Hakim arrives at one of London’s largest public hospitals for a shift as a cleaner, earning little more than minimum wage even though his latest job includes disinfecting rooms reserved for suspected coronavirus patients.

He isn’t certain what he fears most: being exposed to the coronavirus himself, or having to be quarantined for 14 days, as he is one of thousands of private contractors, many of whom receive little sick pay. But he knows what he would do if he did contract the virus — report to work anyway, because he cannot afford to lose even a day’s pay.

“That’s going to be maybe suicide,” said Al-Hakim, who like several other health workers asked not to be identified by their full names, for fear of losing their jobs. “Let’s say I’m sick for one month now — how am I going to pay my rent? The bills are there — how am I going to cope?”

For the moment, Britain has managed to avoid a major outbreak of the coronavirus, with 51 confirmed cases. But as they move to emergency footing this week, government officials are preparing for the possibility that as much as one-fifth of the country’s work force could eventually require some form of sick leave.

The National Health Service, already under great strain, is critical to fighting the epidemic, even as health workers are potentially at risk. So far, at least two health care workers in Britain have tested positive for coronavirus. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that any health care worker at risk should self-isolate and should be entitled to take the time as paid sick leave.

But officials have said little about the risks posed to low-paid contract workers like Al-Hakim, who constitute a growing number of the health service’s work force. The N.H.S. is one of the largest employers in the world, with a staff of more than 1.3 million. Even so, the service has a staffing shortage of roughly 100,000 positions, one of the reasons it has turned to private contractors.

The result is a two-tiered employment structure in which contract workers can find themselves paid less and receiving fewer benefits. Al-Hakim does not qualify for any pay during his first three days of sick leave, and receives only 94.25 pounds ($120.50) a week afterward. By comparison, regular N.H.S. employees receive their full salary from their first sick day, for at least one month and up to six depending on the length of their employment.

“When the N.H.S. is under pressure, it’s under pressure for everyone,” said Dr. John Ashton, a leading public health specialist in the country.“It’s all very well putting doctors or surgeons on a pedestal, but all workers should be valued, and that absolutely means everyone should get full sick pay.”

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