Nobody should have to choose between putting food on the table and keeping the rest of the country safe from Covid-19. But for some that’s a reality as lockdowns continue to hit vulnerable communities – and it’s the National Party that’s responding to their plight, writes political editor Jo Moir.
For the fourth time in a year, Auckland is suffering a Level 3 lockdown and for vulnerable communities, particularly those in South Auckland, the threat of 14 days of self-isolation is a financial nightmare.
The Government has a leave support scheme that provides one-off payments to employers to help cover the costs of their employee being off work.
It’s a flat rate of roughly $1170, which when you take into account average South Auckland rent prices, it leaves barely $100 in the bank.
The onus is on an employer to top it up to the full amount a worker earns a fortnight, or at least 80 percent of that sum, although it is not a legal requirement, leaving employees reliant on the goodwill of their employers.
That’s a grim fortnight for families already struggling to make ends meet, and as National leader Judith Collins says, it’s “well below the minimum wage and below what a full-time worker would earn from sick leave’’.
So with that in mind, the Opposition has announced a scheme that would make it easier for people to stay home and self-isolate.
National is calling on the Government to pay 100 percent of a person’s wages and salary for the two week self-isolation period.
Wage payments would be capped at twice the average ordinary time weekly earnings – just over $2500 based on the December 2020 quarter – and payment would go directly to the employee.
As National’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has pointed out, there’s already a system in place that pays employees 100 percent of their earnings direct, for people who take time off from work to donate organs.
Based on the number of people required to self-isolate for a fortnight in the latest cluster, the Government would only be supporting a couple of thousand.
While that number could potentially blow out in future lockdowns, that shouldn’t be a reason not to help those in need right now.
Given there’s $100 million still unused in the leave support scheme fund, it’s not as if there isn’t money available for exactly this sort of thing.
Asked on Wednesday whether the Government would pick up the policy, Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said it couldn’t financially compensate everyone under every possible scenario.
“What we’re trying to do is make sure we’re spreading financial support as widely as we can to those who need it the most, so we can all get through this,’’ Hipkins said.
And right in that moment, he put a torpedo through his own argument, because the people who need it most are those in South Auckland required to stay home and self-isolate.
Hipkins accepted that 100 percent of employees’ earnings weren’t covered under the scheme, but says the Government isn’t proposing to make any changes to that.
Instead, he says employers are being asked to “do the right thing’’, even though the businesses themselves may be facing dire financial straits.
Those people identified as needing to self-isolate for 14 days are also being asked to do the right thing and stay home.
In some cases they have the full weight of the nation’s judgment put on them by the Prime Minister when they break the rules.
A good starting point for incentivising people to stay home and protect the rest of the country from lockdown restrictions would be making sure they had enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table.
Leaving that responsibility with employers is irresponsible from a Government preaching kindness and compassion.