£500 Covid payment for those who self-isolate is 'speculation', minister tells LBC

22 January 2021, 07:48 | Updated: 22 January 2021, 08:59

By Patrick Grafton-Green

A possible £500 payment for people in England who self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19 has been dismissed as “speculation” by a government minister.

The proposal is said to be the "preferred position" of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), according to a leaked document seen by The Guardian.

But Environment Secretary George Eustice told LBC: “All I would say is we do want improve compliance rates with self-isolation for people who’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive... and we do want people to get that test if they have symptoms of the virus.”

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The idea has reportedly been prompted by government polling indicating that only 17% of people with symptoms are coming forward for testing, while just one-in-four comply with rules to self-isolate for 10 days after testing positive and 15% continue to go to work as normal.

The scheme would cost up to £453 million per week - 12 times the cost of the current system.

Mr Eustice said “we keep these things under review”, but added: “This would also be a huge cost so it’s speculation at the moment, the point that I’d make is we’ve already got support payments there for people who are on certain benefits such as universal credit and are asked to isolate.”

When pressed by Nick Ferrari on whether the payment was “rewarding responsible and illegal behaviour”, Mr Eustice said: “That's only the case if you assume it’s everybody's fault if they get Covid.

"All of the measures that we’re putting in place don’t guarantee that anybody can avoid getting the coronavirus, it’s in the population, it’s spreading.

“What it does do though, all of these measures, and I know we’ve had to take some quite draconian action on gatherings and parties... but that's all about dampening the spread of the virus to limit the prevalence and get that incidence rate back below the R 1 that we all aim for.”

The Resolution Foundation, a think tank which has previously calculated that only one in eight workers qualify for the financial support currently offered to those told to self-isolate, welcomed the proposal.

Researcher Maja Gustafsson said: "The current approach is not fit for purpose with statutory sick pay among the least generous of advanced economies and far too few people eligible for the £500 support payments.

"Swiftly putting in place a much more universal and generous system will make a real difference to controlling the spread of the virus."

The DHSC said it would not comment on the leaked paper but did not deny that blanket self-isolation payouts had been mooted.

"We are in one of the toughest moments of this pandemic and it is incumbent on all of us to help protect the NHS by staying at home and following the rules," a DHSC spokesman said.

"All local authority costs for administering the Test and Trace support payment scheme are covered by the Government, and each authority is empowered to make discretionary payments outside of the scheme.

"£50 million was invested when the scheme launched, and we are providing a further £20 million to help support people on low incomes who need to self-isolate."

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister refused to rule out the lockdown lasting until the summer, while Home Secretary Priti Patel said it was "far too early" to speculate on whether restrictions would be lifted in time to allow Britons a foreign holiday during the warmer months.

Elsewhere:

- Northern Ireland has confirmed its coronavirus lockdown is to be extended for a further four weeks to March 5.

- NHS England regional medical director for London Dr Vin Diwakar said that, while the vaccine programme brought hope, the situation in hospitals remained "really precarious" with "intense" pressure on staff.

- Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a new £800 fine for people who attend house parties with more than 15 people.

- Arrivals from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be banned as of 4am on Friday as the UK looks to prevent the South African Covid-19 variant from taking hold.

The Government's caution in announcing a timetable to ease the lockdown has sparked fears in the hospitality industry that ministers could be preparing to tell pubs and restaurants to keep their doors closed until May, despite ministers aiming to have all the most vulnerable vaccinated by next month.

As 1,290 further deaths were reported on Thursday, and experts modelling the pandemic suggested there could be a huge surge in cases if restrictions were lifted too early.

Dr Marc Baguelin, from Imperial College London, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the Government, said the opening of the hospitality sector before May would lead to another "bump" in transmission.

But UKHospitality chief Kate Nicholls warned delaying reopening until then would mean there would be "very little left" of the sector once the measures were finally eased as Tory MPs urged Boris Johnson to stick to the timetable of restoring freedoms by March.

Former chief whip Mark Harper, leader of the Covid Research Group of lockdown sceptics, said: "Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and fully protected by March 8 - assuming the Government hits the February 15 deadline - the Government must start easing the restrictions.

"Vaccinations will of course bring immunity from Covid, but they must bring immunity from lockdowns and restrictions too."

Official figures up to January 20 showed 4,973,248 people had received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, an increase of 363,508 from the previous day.

Based on the latest figures, an average of 401,070 people a day will need to be vaccinated to meet the target of reaching the 15 million highest priority cases by February 15.

The Government also said that, as of 9am on Thursday, there had been a further 37,892 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, bringing the total number to 3,543,646.