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Workers forced to self-isolate under the NHS Test and Trace programme could get extra cash help under plans being considered by the government.
HuffPost UK has been told that a new form of support is being “actively” considered by civil servants to ensure no one is deterred from the 14-day home quarantine by the fear of losing their wages.
One source even suggested that an announcement could be made in coming days, as part of a big PR blitz to persuade the British public that the Test and Trace programme was vital to the country avoiding a second wave of the virus.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned on Tuesday that “the biggest thing I worry about” is the public failing to report Covid-19 symptoms and failing to engage with NHS Test and Trace once contacted.
Under the system, anyone who tests positive for the virus is advised to cooperate with a tracing team and then inform them of any “close contacts”, defined as someone who they spent more than 15 minutes with at a distance of less than two metres away.
Current figures show that a quarter of people who test positive are not reached by NHS Test and Trace, prompting fears that fresh local outbreaks may be hard to monitor fully and that a second peak of coronavirus could hit the UK this winter.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has pledged to drive up the numbers, stating that he is keeping open the option of making it compulsory rather than voluntary to comply with the system.
But a rival “carrot not stick” option is emerging, with MPs pushing for specialist wage support for those who are forced to stay at home for a fortnight instead of going into work.
Hopes of fresh help rose after Boris Johnson appeared to hint in the House of Commons that he was not against the idea of new forms of support.
With hundreds of meat factory workers in Wales and in Germany testing positive for the virus, Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Savile Roberts pointed out that German employees get statutory sick pay worth 100% of their salary but Brits get roughly 20%.
Asked if he would commit to localised furlough-like schemes for self-isolating workers, the PM replied: “If we have to move back – obviously we do not want to – to local lockdowns, or indeed a national lockdown, nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing.”
The PM’s press spokesperson later said he was simply “reflecting language which he has used in the past” and said that some bosses would have their own alternatives to statutory sick pay.
Statutory sick pay in the UK is just £94 a week, much lower than other European countries. Hancock has himself admitted he could not live on the sum and has encouraged employers to pay more.
But some in government suggest that rather than sick pay rates changing, other forms of support could be offered.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak will not cover such worker schemes in his summer statement due next month, focusing instead on wider macroeconomic measures to help the country cope with the covid crisis and to set a path towards balancing the books.
However, some in government believe that the issue is so acute that an announcement will be made this month.
Savile Roberts said: “People should not be forced to choose between putting food on the table and the need to self-isolate, but – under the current system – that will be the reality for many.”
Lib Dem MP Layla Moran said: “Boris Johnson is right that nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing. He now needs to put his money where his mouth is and provide proper financial support to workers who have to self-isolate.”