Ever since the novel coronavirus began spreading in the UK, a key weakness in the government’s response has endured: some people simply cannot afford to self-isolate.
If you test positive for the virus and have to stay at home for ten days, or live with someone with the virus and have to stay in for 14 days, that means missing out on a maximum of two weeks of work.
Many are well enough to continue working from home, or receive liveable rates of contractual sick pay from their employers. Yet for many others – particularly low-paid workers who cannot work from home, and are more precariously employed – the only immediate support is Britain’s extremely low rate of statutory sick pay: £95.85 per week.
These workers can also apply for Universal Credit, but it takes a minimum of five weeks before the first payment is made, so this would only kick in long beyond their period of quarantine. Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) is also available, but only if you’re not eligible for statutory sick pay (you can’t claim both ESA and statutory sick pay), and comes to £74.35 a week for those temporarily off work.
The government appears finally to have noticed this very obvious gap in its fight against the virus. It is trialling a new self-isolation payment from Tuesday in parts of north-west England. Details of the system, however, reveal a further failure to engage with the problem.
People on low incomes in places with high coronavirus concentration in England, who claim Universal Credit or working tax credits and cannot work from home, will be able to claim up to £182 if they have to self-isolate.
Those testing positive for the virus will receive £130 to isolate for ten days, those who share a household with a positive case will receive up to £182 to isolate for 14 days, and others who meet the eligibility criteria could receive £13 a day.
But these payments are marginally lower than statutory sick pay – a rate that the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has already admitted he couldn’t live on. Though if you are eligible for both statutory sick pay and this new self-isolation pay, you can receive both.
“It’s concerning that this will only apply to a limited number of areas with high rates of Covid-19,” said the shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, who described the payments as a “limited level of support”. “The instruction to self-isolate applies to everyone in the country, so everyone should get the support they need to self-isolate.”
The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said the payment “goes nowhere near far enough”, warning it “leaves people without enough to live on” and urging the government to guarantee workers “full pay” if they need to self-isolate.
See also: How Britain’s essential but most vulnerable workers were exposed as the virus spread rapidly
In Pendle, one of the trial areas in Lancashire, the borough council leader Mohammed Iqbal called the levels of payment “a slap in the face” when interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the New Statesman has spoken to workers – both those eligible for statutory sick pay and those without any support other than benefits – who felt unable to take time off work if they contracted the virus.
If the government has recognised this problem, as the new payment suggests, then it should know the rates that workers struggle to live on.