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The government has failed to provide adequate support for people self-isolating during the pandemic. Too many still fear they won’t be able to afford time off work should they need to stay at home. Compliance with self-isolation has been worryingly low, with some surveys showing that only around a half of people with Covid-19 symptoms stick to the legal requirement to self-isolate. Evidence suggests that financial barriers are a key reason people don’t comply, but the government has failed to fix this blind spot by protecting people from lost earnings when they are required to isolate.
With social restrictions set to ease further, now is the time to address this critical flaw in the government’s pandemic response. Any failure to provide vital self-isolation support could undermine the government’s entire roadmap out of lockdown, putting paid to everything from the vaccine rollout to the expensive test-and-trace system. Given that a significant proportion of the population is still not fully vaccinated, controlling Covid-19 will rely on people who have or might have the virus getting tested and self-isolating. The threat of new variants and high infection rates globally means we cannot afford to be complacent. The population still needs to take self-isolation seriously, and they need to be supported financially to facilitate them in doing so.
The current level of statutory sick pay across the UK is just £96 a week. This covers only a quarter of the average worker’s earnings, while two million workers earn less than the amount required to qualify, leaving the poorest in society without any means to support themselves should they need to self-isolate.
And while one-off £500 self-isolation payments have been introduced UK-wide, these payments are only available to people who qualify for benefits targeted at low-income families and research suggests only one in eight workers are eligible. This restrictive eligibility criteria, along with often confusing and difficult application processes, has resulted in an estimated two-thirds of applications being rejected. The government has increased funding for local councils to provide practical and financial assistance to those self-isolating. But this support is discretionary and may be applied variably: it is by no means guaranteed for everyone who needs it.
Some who lose earnings while self-isolating can claim universal credit, but entitlements are small – currently only £412 a month for a single adult over 25 – and the five-week wait means applicants may struggle to make ends meet until their first payment comes in. The result is that people with no money in the bank are suddenly faced with a disappearing income because they have been told to stay at home.
These issues require an urgent new approach to the problem of how to pay people’s wages while they self-isolate. The government took critical steps during the pandemic to protect incomes with the furlough scheme, which we believe should now be adapted to allow employers to cover the lost wages of self-isolating employees, up to a capped amount. Alongside existing local support packages, such a pledge would help remove any financial imperative for people to work when they should be self-isolating.
If the cap remains as it is under the current furlough scheme (which is £2,500 a month, and would work out as £822 for a typical 10-day self-isolation period), three out of four workers would have their earnings fully replaced. Since the job retention scheme only applies to those with an employer, any self-employment income support should be modified so payments cover short periods of self-isolation rather than being paid in three-month lump sums as with furlough payments.
If Covid-19 case numbers remain at a similar level to that in early April, we estimate that implementing this system would cost just £39m a month. This is equivalent to only 3% of the allocated £1.25bn-a-month test and trace budget for this year and next. The costs would grow if we see another exponential rise in cases, but this seems more affordable than other schemes the government has been willing to commit to – while the potential financial and health consequences of inaction are bleak.
That’s why urgent action is needed, to right the wrong of the poor provision to date by the government for those required to self-isolate. It makes sense both economically and from a public health perspective to increase income support: Covid-19 cases rise when people do not self-isolate, which could drive areas into another lockdown. This is an even more real concern with worrying news of the Indian variant possibly leading to case spikes in places such as Glasgow.
Test, trace and isolate strategies work best at containing Covid-19 when cases are relatively low and the system can keep up with spread. So now is the moment to finally get self-isolation support right and avoid the risk of further cases, deaths or lockdowns.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: If people don’t get paid to self-isolate, UK Covid cases could rise again | Sarah Reed and Mike Brewer