An admin error has left people on benefits and low income unable to access the government’s self-isolating support grant in yet another NHS Test and Trace blunder.
It was claimed up to four million vulnerable people in England could be eligible for the £500 grant when prime minister Boris Johnson announced the Test and Trace Support Payment in September.
However, those asked to self-isolate by local track and trace teams have been unable to access the cash because local councils cannot provide an NHS Test and Trace code.
Likewise, people asked to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace app are also not given reference codes because, due to the app being voluntary, there is no way of knowing who receives an alert.
The scheme, which runs until the end of January, is only accessible to people told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace directly and not those automatically notified by the app.
Anna Stevenson, a welfare benefit expert from anti-poverty charity Turn2us, said: “It is ridiculous that if you are told to isolate by the national phone line you get support, but if you are told by the app, or a local official, you don’t get any support.
“The government needs to fix this as soon as possible, because without the correct financial support people are going to struggle to self-isolate.”
Applicants for the grant must be claiming specific benefits and provide their council with a bank statement, proof of employment and evidence of being self-employed or unable to work from home.
In England, the scheme can only be accessed by people receiving Universal Credit, Working Tax Credit, income-based Employment and Support Allowance, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit and/or Pension Credit.
Hannah Grieveson, a 29-year-old hairdresser from Wallsend, applied for the grant days after testing positive for Covid-19 and being told to self-isolate in October.
But, more than one month on, her claim has still not been approved by North Tyneside Council, who told her the reference ID she was given in relation to her test was wrong.
She said: “It has been totally devastating. I was unable to work because I was self-isolating and now we’ve gone into another lockdown. I’ve had to claim benefits for the first time in my life, but Universal Credit only covers roughly a quarter of my loss of earnings.
“When I heard back from the council about the grant, they said it was the wrong reference code, but they haven’t told me how to find the right one – I just want to say ‘help us’, how am I supposed to find it?”
Grieveson’s hairdressing business has been put on hold because of lockdown and she has been relying on Universal Credit to survive.
It is ridiculous that if you are told to isolate by the national phone line you get support, but if you are told by the app, or a local official, you don’t get any supportAnna Stevenson, Turn2us
Nicola Wood, a 40-year-old NHS nurse from Nottinghamshire, helped her husband, Steven, apply for the self-isolation grant when they both tested positive for the virus in October.
The claim was rejected by Broxtowe Borough Council, which informed them it had been “unable to verify [the] NHS Track and Trace ID number” and “there is no right to appeal”.
She said: “It was just another stress for us and, having spoken to other people who have applied for the grant, everyone has been told the reference number is wrong.”
After contacting their MP, they submitted a second application, which was also turned down – this time because Wood had received 80 per cent of a director’s salary from his business under the furlough scheme.
“This grant would be a real lifeline to us, but we have been left out because my husband was paid part of his director’s salary, which is only normally £700 a month anyway,” Wood added.
“And because he was honest about when he did and didn’t work, some months that only worked out as about £200 or £300.
“They take dividends into account when deciding whether or not someone can claim benefits but, when it comes to providing support, they just aren’t interested.”
Campaign group ExcludedUK has been campaigning since May on behalf of nearly three million people it says have received little or no financial support during the pandemic.
Co-founder Aron Padley said: “It’s an obvious irony that we might now have a vaccine ready before the government has closed those gaps in support, or even corrected the systemic failures of NHS Test and Trace.
“For anyone that has been denied previous support, and is now prevented from working, even £500 is a lot of money.”
Low income thinktank Resolution Foundation’s Maja Gustafsson said that while the £500 grant was a “generous and welcome innovation”, just one in eight workers are eligible for it.
She added: “Take-up among those who are entitled is disappointingly low – due in part to administrative errors, coupled with a lack of publicity.
“A good policy on its own isn’t enough – communication, public awareness and effective implementation are equally important.”
A panel of experts told the Work and Pensions Committee last week that “almost no one” is receiving the payment, due to administrative errors and a lack of public awareness.
The issue was raised in parliament last week when the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for environment, food and rural affairs, Tim Farron, described it as a “flaw in the system”.
He told ministers: “[It] is preventing many people from making the choices that they need to make to keep everybody safe, while also putting food on the table.”
When asked how many people had successfully claimed the grant, the Department of Health and Social Care said the figures are not routinely published.
A spokesperson said: “NHS Test and Trace contact tracers will make people they contact aware of the potential support available to those who are eligible, including where they need to go to apply.
“We have also provided support for local authorities to advertise the scheme through their own networks.
“We are actively exploring ways to expand the payment scheme to include those who are advised by the app to self-isolate because of close contact with somebody who has tested positive.”