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3 February 2021updated 25 Jul 2021 11:52am

The lack of self-isolation support remains a gaping hole in the UK’s Covid-19 response

Test and trace is pointless without quarantining cases. But the government still isn’t ensuring that people have the financial help they need.

By Anoosh Chakelian

If you test positive for Covid-19, or are found to have been in contact with someone who has, you are then told to self-isolate. This self-isolation lasts for ten days from the day you tested positive, or the day you were last in contact with the person who tested positive.

If you work full-time, ten days is two working weeks. Because taking this much time off work at short notice is difficult financially, each of the devolved governments provides some support to help people stay at home.

In England, if you cannot work from home and face losing income, you are eligible for an upfront £500 payment if you or your partner receives certain benefits. There are also discretionary £500 payments available for those who aren’t on benefits but are “on a low income”, which is judged in the application process. Either way, you apply to your council for the payment.

In Wales, the scheme differs in that parents and carers of children required to self-isolate are also eligible. In Scotland, the system does not explicitly provide discretionary payments for people who don’t receive benefits (who are instead signposted to “crisis grants”). Unlike the other devolved nations, which offer a £500 fixed payment, Northern Ireland has a discretionary self-isolation grant scheme that has been in place since last March, and bases the payment rate on individual circumstances.

It all sounds very sensible, and Conservative MPs and ministers speak confidently about this support being available whenever they’re asked. However, the system in England isn’t working.

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New Freedom of Information data collected by the Trades Union Congress and revealed on BBC Newsnight shows that 70 per cent of all applications for the £500 payment since it was introduced last September were rejected. Of discretionary grants, 79 per cent were rejected. In one in four council areas, 90 per cent of people were turned away.

[See also: Anoosh Chakelian on the people who have been forced to claim benefits for the first time by Covid-19]

At first, £50m made available to councils to provide this support for people to self-isolate – £25m for those who receive the qualifying benefits and are therefore eligible, £15m for discretionary payments and £10m to cover administrative costs. Councils have been unable to make this money stretch to covering their residents’ self-isolation applications, therefore rejecting the majority of requests. The money for this scheme was recently topped up to £70m.

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Fear of a loss of income is one of the main reasons why people say they cannot self-isolate. According to recent research by University College London, while compliance with coronavirus rules is very high in the UK, around 40 per cent of people admitted they did not self-isolate for the full ten-day period, and 13 per cent said they had not self-isolated at all when they developed symptoms.

This goes beyond a story about underfunded local authorities, or poor provision for people on low incomes. It is a huge, enduring gap in the government’s response to the spread of Covid-19. If people cannot afford to self-isolate, then the virus – and all its mutations – will continue to spread.

Dido Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, told the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons that an estimated 20,000 people a day are not self-isolating as instructed.

In response, the shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “Confirmation that 20,000 people a day sick with Covid are not isolating confirms our repeated warnings that without decent sick pay and support we won’t break chains of transmission.

“With worrying identification of the South African variant in the community and the E484K mutation in the infectious Kent variant it’s now more urgent than ever that this hole in our defences is fixed.”

[See also: Michael Goodier on whether the public is really ignoring the lockdown rules]