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Boris Johnson is facing fresh calls to support the wages of workers asked to self-isolate with Covid after the head of NHS Test and Trace admitted the public have real “financial” worries about taking part in the system.
Tory peer Dido Harding, who runs the service, revealed to the House of Lords that early surveys had shown that people had reported money worries - as well as practical and emotional difficulties - when asked to comply with the home quarantine request.
Labour and the Lib Dems seized on her words to press for extra wage support such as a rise in Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) which is currently around £94 a week, a level that health secretary Matt Hancock has admitted he could not live on.
The TUC has also pointed out that the prime minister has promised that no one should be “penalised for doing the right thing”, but many workers simply can’t afford to stay at home for a fortnight.
Two million people don’t earn the required £118 a week needed to qualify for statutory sick pay.
NHS Test and Trace requires those who test positive for covid to self-isolate for a week and any of their “close contacts” - defined as being within two metres for more than 15 minutes - to stay indoors for a fortnight.
But the system is currently failing to reach a quarter of people who test positive for Covid-19, and one in five of those asked to self-isolate then fail to do so.
As she gave evidence to the Lords Science and Technology Committee, Harding was asked by Labour’s Lord Hollick what extra support would improve the public’s “adherence” to the test and trace system.
Harding replied: “The early evidence from surveys that we have been doing of people who’ve been asked to isolate shows that people do as you say find it hard. The main reasons why they find it hard tends to be either financial, practical or emotional.”
She went on to say that “access” to sick pay had been improved, a reference to the government’s decision in March to allow workers to get the benefit from their first day off work, not the fourth as required before the pandemic.
Harding added that local councils have plans to “make sure that people who haven’t got easy access to food or either physical or mental health support are able to access it’. “But I think there is undoubtedly more that we can all do,” she added.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told HuffPost UK: “Labour has been saying since Covid-19 first appeared on the horizon that there were too many people in precarious financial positions who would find it very difficult to self isolate on current statutory sick pay rates.
“Four months on, this acknowledgement from the government that this is an issue is to be welcomed, but it now needs to actually come up with a plan to ensure those who have to self isolate are not penalised financially. A successful test, trace and isolate strategy relies on all those who test positive self isolating.
“The government has been too slow to recognise this as a problem, we don’t want it to be too slow to respond with a solution as well.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said: “The government must listen to the evidence and give those self-isolating proper financial support.
“Matt Hancock has admitted he couldn’t live on statutory sick pay of £94 a week. Why does he expect others to as a key plank of the Test and Trace system?
“The bottom line is people shouldn’t be left worse off for doing the right thing and following the rules. Increasing support for those self-isolating is both logically and morally the right thing to do.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “It’s not viable to ask people to self-isolate, perhaps repeatedly, if they are pushed into financial hardship.
“There’s a clear danger this will force them to keep working and put themselves, workmates and local community at risk.
“That’s why we are calling on the government to raise statutory sick pay to at least the level of the real Living Wage - £325 per week. And to ensure low-paid workers can get it.”
During her evidence, Harding stressed that the system had only been in operation for four-and-a-half weeks but admitted it was not yet meeting government scientists’ goal of getting 80% of a coronavirus case’s contacts into self-isolation within a 72-hour period.
“We are not far away from it,” she said. “We are not exactly there yet but we are close enough that we can see the path.”
“My biggest concern is that less than half of the population in England are aware they are eligible for a test, that everyone can get a test if they are feeling unwell.”
Harding indicated that as the system built up its capabilities, it would begin doing “backward tracing” to identify where a person who tested positive may have contracted Covid-19 .
“We are building that backward-tracing capability as we speak and in fact trialling it in Leicester,” she said.
“As the rate of infection comes down, backward tracing becomes increasingly viable.”
Both Harding and NHS colleague Simon Thompson, refused to say whether the government’s tracing app would be ready in time for a possible winter ‘second wave’ of coronavirus.
Thompson said he had “growing confidence” the app would work and was “leaving no stone unturned” to accelerate its development.
Harding said an app would have a key role but stressed that human contact tracers, particularly the clinicians who phone the public, were most trusted.
She said NHS Test and Trace was a “digitally-assisted human service rather than something that is going to be purely digital”. “People are extremely reticent to give up their freedom for two weeks based on a text message,” she added.