The Daily Telegraph
What 10 days of sick leave would really be like
As Boris implores Brits to ‘be more German’ about illness, Harry de Quetteville asks what that would mean
It is odd, four decades since Norman Tebbit delivered his famous “get on yer bike” speech at the 1981 Tory party conference, to hear a Conservative prime minister insisting that Britons need to be “much more disciplined about not going into work”.
But Boris Johnson says that we have much to learn from Germany, where workers feeling under the weather take time off at the drop of a hat. “I’m suggesting that is something we could learn,” Johnson said on Monday, sketching out his vision of a new absenteeism ethic to help keep Covid in check, now that official regulations are to be abandoned.
It sounds tempting. The latest data shows that, on average, German employees take off 18.3 days sick per year, while we Britons soldier on with just 4.1 days off. Even the French, missing 8.4 annually, seem stoic by comparison with their neighbours across the Rhine. No wonder that, a decade or so after Tebbit’s conference speech, the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl described his country as “a collective holiday camp”.
What’s more, Germans on sick leave are entitled to full pay for six weeks, then 70 per cent of earnings for up to 78 weeks. Nor is this politically contentious. “In general, people agree that it is a good system,” says Anja
Rieger, a doctor in Berlin. “Perhaps in recent years there’s been a bit more pressure from colleagues to come in, but in general there’s no problem staying at home if you feel sick.”
Britons, by contrast, must make do with statutory sick pay (SSP, currently £96.35 per week for 28 weeks), which covers just 10 to 20 per cent of previous earnings. According to the OECD, a club of rich nations, only the United States and South Korea have been less generous to sick workers than the UK – and that was before the pandemic. After the emergence of Covid-19, the UK’S SSP became the least generous in the rich world.
There are bureaucratic as well as financial hurdles. German employers require a sick note if a worker is off for more than three days, but that’s not a problem in a country with 4.5 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants. In Britain, where we have 3 per 1,000, a sick-note culture would present a real challenge.
Nor do senior German executives buck the trend by rolling up their sleeves when they feel under the weather. In fact, according to research by Boris Hirsch, a professor at Germany’s Institute of Labour Economics, higher-paid German workers turn up less often than their less well-paid colleagues when they are sick, because it is generally harder and more expensive to fire them.
On top of sick days, German workers are entitled to a minimum of four weeks’ holiday per year, though five or six is common. In Britain, a minimum of 28 days – 5.6 weeks – off, is the legal requirement.
Instantly transposing the German system to the UK, then, would bring our current system to a grinding halt. GP surgeries would be overwhelmed, poorer workers impoverished, and those sectors where unions could enforce more stringent terms would be emptied of staff. Schools would find the staffing crises of Covid become the long-term norm; the struggle to fill hospital rotas would turn permanent.
There would be an inevitable knock-on to the benefits system, too. After all, it was only a decade ago that another Conservative PM, David Cameron, wailed that “we simply have to get to grips with the sick-note culture that means a short spell of sickness absence can far too easily become a gradual slide to a life of long-term benefit dependency”.
Germany’s is a healthcare culture rooted in another world – the Krankenversicherungsgesetz (Health Insurance Act), which Chancellor Otto
von Bismarck introduced in 1883, and which itself was based on mutual relief funds for craftsmen reaching back centuries into Germany’s past.
The system’s foundation is the pooled risk of insurance models, rather than the tax-financed NHS. Whereas the latter suffers from shortages and waiting times, the German system is probably most afflicted by bloat – “an oversupply of pharmaceutical products, an excess in the number of inpatient cases and hospital stays”, according to a review in The Lancet. All of which comes at a cost – the ONS notes that in 2017, the UK “spent £2,989 per person on healthcare” – about average for the OECD. Germany, by contrast, spent £4,432 – some 48 per cent more per person.
But Germany can afford it, in part due to the astonishing productivity gap between German workers and British ones. Indeed, the average output per worker across the world’s
biggest economies is 13 per cent greater than in Britain.
Partly this is because, in Germany, work is work. Office days are shorter than in Britain (about 300 hours less over the course of a year, or 38 eight-hour days!), but once at work, diligence is prized. “Der Präsentismus” – as presenteeism is known – can even be frowned upon.
It may all sound a bit miserable – no office banter, no japing around. But it works in the other direction too, as Germany has laws in place to stop work life bleeding into home life, which is equally prized.
Perhaps, then, the Prime Minister was revealing more than he intended when suggesting Britain adopt more German-style working practices. For doing so would represent a political upheaval here, a seismic change towards a Continental-style social welfare model – a more statist, higher spending, higher productivity economy that depends less on low-paid labour.