People with Covid are too “scared” to come forward for a test because of a lack of government cash support, the head of Test and Trace has said.
Baroness Dido Harding told a CBI webinar that the most recent figures showed that less than 60% of people who tested positive followed advice to quarantine at home once contacted.
But the Tory peer said the problem of people not taking the test was even more of an issue.
Harding said that it was up to chancellor Rishi Sunak to resolve the cash help problem, adding that the rollout of rapid testing in workplaces to help pick up asymptomatic cases early would help too.
Her remarks came days after No.10 ruled out proposals from the Department of Health and Social Care to pay everyone a flat-rate payment of £500 each if they were forced to quarantine at home.
Asked about problems with financial support, Harding told the CBI online event: “The biggest challenge there, is less people not following the isolation guidance, [it] is people not coming forward for testing in the first place – people who were scared that there isn’t financial [support].”
“The biggest worry we have there is not so much people failing to follow isolation guidance, it’s failing to come forward for a test in the first place.
“The latest data we have from Test and Trace would suggest that about just under 60% of people are following the advice [to self-isolate for 10 days].”
That figure was a reference to her evidence to MPs last November, when she said 59% were following the guidance on isolation.
Harding signalled last summer that more financial support was needed and when asked if further help was needed now she replied: “It is a cross government decision on how much financial support is offered, very much one for the Treasury and the chancellor.”
The government’s £500 one-off payment for poorer workers – introduced in September for those told to isolate by human contact tracers, and in December for those told to isolate by the NHS Covid app – is out of the reach of many employees.
Ministers are looking at what further support to offer but Downing Street last week ruled out extending the payment to everyone.
Harding said the £500 payment had already shown an impact, but for those ineligible for the cash she urged employers to offer more support.
“I think anecdotally, it has improved people’s confidence, particularly in very low income groups. But you’re outside of that group, and you’re still worried about the financial consequences of isolation, I’d say you’re more dependent on how your employer treats you than how the government is going to.
“I would say that employers on this call, it’s very important that you are encouraging people who work for you, who have symptoms think they might have Covid to get tested and to make sure that you are providing the support so that they can afford to take those days off work.”
Harding stressed that people asked to isolate also needed practical help with caring responsibilities for children or elderly relatives, shopping and mental health support.
The Test and Trace chief, whose service has come under fire for its low contact tracing rates and continued failure to meet the PM’s target of giving 100% of test results within 24 hours, said that rapid testing in workplaces was likely to remain in place over the medium to long term.
“We’re very supportive of all employers rolling this out as part of their normal practices of living with Covid.
“As the vaccine program rolls out, we will want to maintain things like regular asymptomatic testing and tracing as one of the last non-pharmaceutical interventions that we will want to release, we’d much rather open up parts of the economy before you stop doing the testing.”
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “For 10 months we’ve been urging ministers to understand the stark reality that for thousands of people lack of decent sick pay and support prevents them from self isolating.
“We won’t break transmission chains while ministers expect families to go hungry to stop spreading infection. To save lives and reduce hospitalisations Boris Johnson must put in place decent financial support for people to isolate.
“Will the Prime Minister now listen to the head of his own Test and Trace system?”
A No.10 spokesperson said: “We’ve made the £500 available to those on lower incomes and we’ve made extra finance available to local authorities to give extra assistance.”
Earlier, new research from the Office for National Statistics showed that those in low-paid sectors like hospitality, food and drink processing, transport, and healthcare had a statistically significant elevated risk of dying from Covid-19 than other workers.
The GMB union spoke out after ONS figures found that at least 8,000 working age deaths were linked to Covid-19 in England and Wales in 2020.
Occupations with the highest number of Covid-linked deaths were care workers and home carers (347 deaths), taxi and cab drivers (213 deaths), sales and retail assistants (180 deaths), nurses (157 deaths), and cleaners and domestic workers (153 deaths).
Dan Shears, GMB national health, safety and environment director, said: “The deaths of 8,000 working age people is a devastating and bitter milestone that could have been avoided.
“Workers are still being forced to use inadequate PPE, and some people are attending work despite being infectious because they cannot afford to self-isolate. These are structural problems that could have been fixed months ago.”