The bedroom tax should be “urgently reviewed” to help people in larger households self-isolate from coronavirus, the government’s top scientific advisers have urged.
The controversial “no recourse to public funds” condition that stops migrants claiming benefits, and the benefit cap that limits the state help available to vulnerable people, should also be reviewed given the difficulties they create for poorer people told to self-isolate who may lose income as a result, the experts said.
A review of household Covid transmission by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) published on Friday said the virus being passed around within people’s homes was a significant contributor to its overall spread in the UK.
The consensus statement dated November 24 analyses data from five population studies – ONS, REACT-Imperial, Biobank, QResearch and OpenSAFELY.
The studies find that the presence of multiple generations within single households is a key factor in the risk of Covid-19 infection and death, even taking into account deprivation and other factors those households also experience.
The risk is particularly significant within households in south Asian communities, the scientists found.
“It is highly likely that the high levels of transmission seen in the quantitative studies in this paper are connected to cramped, low quality and crowded housing,” Sage said in the report.
“The spare room levy (the ‘bedroom tax’) has limited the amount of space available to families in social housing – space which can be crucial if, for example, members of the family return home (e.g. adult children returning, as happens in times of economic downturn), or there is a need for a carer to stay.
“The emphasis on within-household isolation during the pandemic is rendered much more of a challenge where there is no spare room.
“The bedroom tax should therefore be immediately revisited especially in deprived and over-crowded areas to ensure this does not pose an impediment to self-isolation for households at higher risk of infection and transmission.”
Compared with white ethnic groups, those from minority ethnic groups, particularly of south Asian origin, tend to live in larger or multigenerational households, the studies found.
Additionally the document suggests other practical support should be offered to allow safe isolation of individuals living in crowded or multigenerational households.
The paper says minority ethnic groups face greater economic constraints, exacerbated by the economic impacts of the pandemic, and are more likely to live in housing in deprived communities.
Along with higher average household sizes, that means they would particularly benefit from housing strategies like the provision of emergency grants for repair and maintenance of social and private rental housing, and additional space.
In October Baroness Doreen Lawrence called for the government to suspend the NRPF rule that prevents some migrants accessing state assistance until their immigration status has been finalised, which she says is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, and in turn is leading to a higher impact of the coronavirus pandemic upon them.
Sage said in the report: “The interaction of immigration and benefit systems, and ‘no recourse to public funds’, may exacerbate issues of overcrowding in cases where job loss arises and there is no potential to draw on state benefits or social housing – necessitating the use of informal arrangements.
“Therefore, we support the call to make exemptions to this rule faster and easier to receive.”
The government must also give local authorities more cash and provide greater regulation to increase the supply and quality of social homes and affordable private rented accommodation, the scientists said.
Meanwhile, the government has made no change to the benefit cap policy, which limits the total amount of benefits low-earning or non-working households can receive, in light of the pandemic.
Charities said it is not right that struggling families are being penalised when they have little to no chance of finding extra work or new jobs, and are calling for the cap to be suspended.
The Child Action Poverty Group (CPAG) said most of the affected households were capped as a result of Covid-19 seeing their working hours being cut, being furloughed, or losing their job altogether.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said: “We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families through the pandemic and beyond. That’s why we have provided billions in welfare support this year, and people are exempt from the benefit cap for the first nine months while they adjust to new circumstances.
“The removal of the spare room subsidy has been an important tool to help to manage housing support expenditure and enable mobility within the social rented sector.”