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Self-isolation: Financial Barriers

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913154)

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913167)

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913169)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the adequacy of financial support arrangements for people who are self-isolating during the covid-19 outbreak. (913182)

People who are instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace and are on a qualifying means-tested benefit, unable to work from home and losing income as a result may be entitled to a payment of £500 from their local authority.

We need people to self-isolate to control transmission and ease restrictions, yet many are continuing to work as they cannot survive on £95.85 statutory sick pay per week. The Chancellor has been asked about this on numerous occasions, and it was disappointing that nothing new was announced in his Budget. Does the Minister agree that those who do not have access to occupational sick pay and cannot work from home should be eligible for the Test and Trace support payments?

The hon. Lady is right that many people —indeed, the majority of workers—will have support from employers above statutory sick pay, but it is for the reason she outlines that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor also announced that there will be a payment of £500 for those not qualifying for the means-tested benefit, paid through the discretionary scheme that was funded at the Budget and to be administered by local authorities.

Bradford Council has the highest demand for self-isolation payments in the country, reflecting the fact that most people in our city are unable to work from home. The standard scheme for people in receipt of certain benefits is fully funded, but the discretionary scheme, which the council must use for everyone else, is not. In fact, the funding for Bradford falls far short of demand, so will the Minister urgently look into this so that councils with a high demand can support all workers who need to self-isolate?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point, which is that there was a pressure on the scheme for local authorities. It is for exactly that reason that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget that there will be an increase to £20 million per month for the discretionary scheme. He also listened to representations from the hon. Lady and others about widening the scope of eligibility under that scheme.

The Government have now made available £20 million a month in discretionary self-isolation funding for local authorities, despite only making £15 million available for four months when the scheme first started, and because of this, hundreds of people in Blackburn have been denied support to self-isolate. Does the Minister now accept that initial allocations fell well below what was needed and contributed to the rise in cases, and does he think that that is fair on my constituents?

It is right that there was support in place, but it is also right that my right hon Friend the Chancellor has listened to points made by Members across the House, which is why the discretionary support has been increased and also why it has been extended to cover parents who are unable to work because they are caring for a child who is self-isolating and a number of other factors. I think that shows once again the willingness of this Government to respond to the path of the virus and to adapt our schemes to what is needed with, in particular, the extensive support that is now being offered and has throughout the pandemic been offered to local authorities.

In November, a constituent of mine was told to isolate via the NHS covid-19 app. She would have been eligible for the isolation payment, but as she was told to isolate via the app, she was never given an NHS Test and Trace account ID, and therefore her application could go no further. My constituent was affected financially as she could not work, and she has been going round in circles, even with my help, trying to access the payment. Can the Minister advise if my constituent can still access this payment retrospectively?

It is always difficult to comment without seeing the full facts of an individual case, and I know the hon. Lady is always an incredibly assiduous constituency Member and will ensure that the case is looked at. On the specifics, I would also point to the fact that there is a wider package of support as well. For example, in addition to the self-isolation payments, there is often eligibility for self-employed workers through the self-employed income support scheme. There is a wide range of measures, but obviously it will depend on the individual case.

Test and Trace has now been allocated £37 billion, but its head, Baroness Dido Harding, has told both the Public Accounts Committee and the Science and Technology Committee that the big struggle is to get people to isolate. So, although the Government have provided support for people to self-isolate, surely the Chief Secretary can go back and look again to ensure that what the Treasury is providing enables test, trace and isolate to be truly effective, or we are really not going to beat this pandemic?

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of Test and Trace; it is key to our unlocking the economy and to addressing the much more substantive costs in terms of the non-pharmaceutical interventions. As she will know as Chair of the PAC, while I as Chief Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will always look at the cost of Test and Trace, the bigger prize is getting our economy opened. On the substantive point the hon. Lady raises on the self-isolation payments, again I point to the fact that at the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor increased the funding for discretionary support; that sits alongside the £500 itself, and is in addition to the wider support that the majority of employers provide.

The Government’s road map out lockdown says that self-isolation is critically important to halting the spread of disease, yet Baroness Harding has recently admitted that financial difficulties prevent people from self-isolating and a year ago the Health Secretary admitted he could not live on statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week. It is now £95.85 a week, so can the Minister explain why the Chancellor refuses simply to guarantee that anyone who has to rely on statutory sick pay or is unable to access even that should be eligible for the £500 payment?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has actually read the Budget announcement made last week, because the discretionary element of the Test and Trace support payments applies even if people are not in receipt of means-tested benefits. So it does recognise the point raised by Members that it is important that there is an incentive for people to be tested; that is what the £500 payment through the Test and Trace system addresses. But in addition Members raised cases which were just outside the means-tested element of Test and Trace; that is the issue that the discretionary fund addresses, and it was dealt with in the Budget last week.