U.K. to Pay People on Low Incomes If Isolating Due to Covid
Commuters walk along a concourse at Clapham Junction railway station in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

U.K. to Pay People on Low Incomes If Isolating Due to Covid

The U.K. government said it will pay workers on low incomes 13 pounds ($17) a day if they are self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic, triggering a backlash from trade unions and council leaders who argue the amount is too little to make a difference.

The payments begin on a trial basis from Sept. 1 in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham, areas of northwest England currently with additional social distancing-rules in place to contain local Covid-19 outbreaks, the Department for Health said. The announcement comes as data show the government’s coronavirus track-and-trace program again falling short of its target.

Boris Johnson’s government has been under pressure to boost support for people who are forced to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid-19 or who come into contact with a confirmed case. Fear of lost income is regarded as a key reason for people to opt out of the track-and-trace system, increasing the risk that infected workers contribute to a new spike in the virus that could again cause parts of the economy to shut down.

Speaking to the BBC on Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there is “potential” for the program to be extended beyond the trial areas and defended the level of payments.

‘Lose Out’

“It’s set at the level of statutory sick pay in order to make sure that people don’t lose out from doing the right thing,” Hancock said. “We need to make sure the systems work and we need to get money to people fast.”

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said the “paltry” sums will not cover people’s needs and criticized the government for limiting the trial to certain areas.

“Ministers shouldn’t need a trial to know that’s the right thing to do. And sick pay must not become a postcode lottery,” O’Grady said.

Publication of the latest track-and-trace data on Thursday has brought the issue of participation again into focus. Ministers have repeatedly said that an efficient program is critical for the government’s cornerstone policies, from opening up the economy to reopening schools.

Below Target

The government’s target is to reach 80% of close contacts of a coronavirus case through the program. Between Aug. 13 and Aug. 19 -- the latest reporting period -- the number was 75.5%, compared with 71.6% a week earlier.

Still, the latest figures also showed that 6,115 people tested positive for coronavirus in England in the latest period, an 8% decline despite a 2% increase in the number of people tested.

The government said the new financial assistance will only be made available to workers who are unable to carry out their jobs from home and who are already receiving either Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit income support.

Those who test positive will receive 130 pounds for a 10-day quarantine period, and those required to self-isolate for two weeks because they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive will receive 182 pounds, according to the department.

Not Enough

Before Hancock’s announcement, a group of leading trade unions and senior members of the opposition Labour Party had backed a campaign -- “Time Out to Help Out” -- pressing the government for workers to receive full pay during self-isolation periods.

Labour Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham, a key figure in the campaign, said the government’s plan “goes nowhere near far enough,” the BBC reported.

Meanwhile Mohammed Iqbal, leader of Pendle council, welcomed the fact that the government was issuing payments but told BBC Radio 4 the amount is “a slap in the face for those people who sadly test positive.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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