03/02/2021 22:20 GMT

The Magic Money Tree Exists, So Why Not Shake It To Help People Self-Isolate?

Cash is king when it comes to providing a real safety net in the Covid era and beyond.

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What’s the best way to really stop coronavirus from spreading? Getting as many infected people as possible to isolate themselves and to break that deadly chain of transmission. So, it was pretty worrying today when Dido Harding revealed that at least 20,000 people a day are currently not isolating when they should be.

The actual number will obviously be higher than even that huge figure, as it is a rough estimate based only on those who have come forward for tests or been traced as a contact (and based on the UCL research suggesting 20% of people don’t home quarantine for the required 10 days).

As for the reasons for that lack of compliance, well they’ve been much discussed in recent weeks and normally boil down to these: practicalities (caring responsibilities, no online shopping), mental stress (just wanting to get a breath of fresh air, or see other people) and, yes, a fear of not having enough money to meet daily bills.

Councils are trying to help with those practical problems and social isolation, and even administer £500 hardship payments for the poorest. But the current scheme has huge holes with many excluded from support and it’s the sheer lack of cash that is ultimately the government’s responsibility.

This is not a new issue. Sage pointed out the need for financial support last year. Jeremy Hunt has recently proposed a simple salary-replacement scheme for those who spend 10 days at home doing the right thing. As he rightly points out, the price would be small compared to the much higher cost of a longer lockdown and the impact on the public finances.

Yet when the Department of Health floated a simple £500 payment for everyone who isolated, they were shot down not just by the Treasury but No.10 too. Why? Partly because of the unfounded belief that people would then have an “incentive” to catch the virus to test positive. The tiny number who would do so, and the number who may falsely claim to be contacts, would be outweighed by those finally able to isolate without money worries.

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty said in the latest No.10 press conference, “of course it’s about trying to reduce discentives” from isolation. With what seemed a weariness that cash support was still an issue, Whitty said “those have been discussed at some length”. And not resolved, was what he left hanging.

Harding has recently admitted people are “scared” of losing wages in isolation, yet seemed to align herself with the Treasury today. She said any extra financial incentive should be devised so it “genuinely drives the right behaviour, rather than any unforeseen consequences″. Which was richly ironic given Test and Trace has deemed it proper to pay £1,100 a day to hundreds of private consultants as an incentive for doing public service.

As Harding herself today said, her biggest concern was the large number of people who weren’t even coming forward for tests. The Cabinet Office estimates that just 17% of people with symptoms are coming forward. That’s precisely why the DHSC put forward its simple idea of a flat rate for everyone.

Although a lump sum for 10 days isolation seems an obvious answer, a lump sum for a whole year’s Universal Credit uplift is another matter entirely. Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey made clear publicly that she opposed the Treasury’s cost-cutting plans for a £500 one-off payment, saying: “Previous experience is that a steady sum of money would probably be more beneficial to claimants and customers.”

Yes, you read that right. People benefit from a steady stream of income that is high enough to make ends meet – what a dangerously radical idea. With interest rates at record lows, the Treasury knows that borrowing is the essential magic money tree getting the nation through this pandemic, so why can’t it do a cost-benefit analysis of the advantage of tackling the inequalities that have fuelled the virus?

Which brings me to one final point about hard cash. The Social Market Foundation think tank this week produced a report hailing the benefits of direct cash payments as opposed to benefits in kind like food parcels and even school laptops. Here is a policy that could unite the right (it is a much more efficient way of distributing resources) and the left (it provides dignity not stigma).

Boris Johnson seems increasingly in favour of simplicity in his response to the virus. He all but confirmed this week that he will move away from complex tiers to a more easily understandable nationwide roadmap out of lockdown. A similarly simple approach to offering people directly the cash they really need seems well overdue.