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Covid-19: Self-Isolation

Volume 810: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number of people self-isolating who have been asked to do so as a result of testing positive for COVID-19.

My Lords, we know that the public continue to make enormous sacrifices. A recently published study by UCL indicated that, in the case of people who have been in contact with someone who tests positive, the proportion who report self-isolating is around 80%. Isolation remains critical to breaking the chains of transmission. We continue to improve our support to those who are asked to isolate.

My Lords, surveys show that approximately a third of people stop self-isolating between one and five days, with many saying that, despite the current cash support, it is the financial crisis that they face that forces them out of isolation and back to work. Is it not time for the Government to deal with this and do what some other countries with high levels of self-isolation compliance do by paying people’s full wages while they isolate?

My Lords, the surveys are not crystal clear about practice, but on the whole the UCL survey and our own interrogation of those isolating suggest that compliance is much higher than the noble Lord implies. I pay tribute to local councils, which are doing an enormous amount to provide the kind of economic support that the noble Lord quite rightly alludes to. Blackburn with Darwen, for instance, provides an enormous amount of support for those with annual earnings under £21,152. In Colchester, applicants must not have more than £16,000 in capital, but the council provides a substantial discretionary payment. It is this kind of targeted local support that we believe can make an enormous difference.

My Lords, Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs, has reiterated that there is no testing at airports, with incoming passengers able to leave the terminal and go directly to public transport. This has been reinforced on television with passengers leaving Heathrow without any checks whatever, having flown in from South Africa via Dubai. Does the Minister believe that such slackness keeps the British people safe?

My Lords, I do not accept the accusation of slackness. Testing should happen before the flight, not at the airport. All those who seek to avoid the red list protocols will be interviewed by the police, and the kinds of fines ascribed to that offence have been made crystal clear in the Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Does the noble Lord the Minister dispute the figure quoted by my noble friend Lord Scriven about the number cutting short their isolation, or is he just planning to ignore it? Does he accept the figure from local authorities that two-thirds of applicants for the £500 do not receive it? Does he therefore agree with me that most of those who apply for it actually need it to help them do the right thing?

My Lords, I do question the figure supplied by the noble Lord on isolation adherence because, I am afraid, he does not know, nor is there any questionnaire that can prove exactly, who is isolating, when they are isolating, for how long and under what circumstances. However, I agree with the noble Baroness that the issue of economic support is very important. We have put a large number of protocols in place. The isolation payment of £500 is substantial. I acknowledge that there have been procedural issues with that payment, but a lot of them have been ironed out and take-up of the money has increased.

My Lords, the challenges for effective testing, border security and the development of effective vaccines have obviously all increased hugely with the emergence of new variants, which continues and is causing great public concern. Can my noble friend say what the Government are doing to use the expertise that we have in the UK in genomic testing, which has enabled us to identify these variants, to help other countries do the same? In the end, it is not only the right thing to do morally, but it helps us too.

My noble friend is entirely right. We can only be safe here in the UK if we understand what variants of concern are developing elsewhere in the world, if the countries where those variants are emerging are testing and are identifying those variants, and if measures are put in place to tackle them. That is why we have put together an international platform where we will accept samples of new variants from anywhere in the world and use Britain’s substantial genomic testing capacity to help countries process them. We are sending machines from the UK and providing expertise for all those who need to supplement their genomic testing using the considerable resources of Public Health England, the Sanger Institute and our genomic testing capabilities.

My Lords, I congratulate the Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi on the excellent rollout of the vaccines. However, the CBI, of which I am president, had a recent survey that showed that only 13% of firms are testing their workforce, due to lack of expertise, unclear guidance and funding and operational regularity. However, firms have welcomed the workplace testing portal and the lowering of the employee threshold to 50. Can the Minister confirm what the medium and long-term strategy for workplace testing is and also the interaction of mass testing and mass vaccinations?

My Lords, of course, employees should be working from home wherever possible, and that is why our focus has not been on this area to date. I emphasise that on Monday the community testing part of Test and Trace issued a call to all those employers of more than 50 employees where it will provide free testing kits for those interested in using workplace testing. This is going to be an essential part of our fight against Covid in the future, and we look forward to working closely with the CBI and other employer groups to make sure that the rollout happens efficiently.

I am puzzled, because the studies by SAGE estimate that the levels of compliance were between 18% and 25% and that people earning less than £20,000 a year or who had less than £100 in savings were three times less likely to self-isolate. I repeat what other noble Lords have said: what plans do the Government have to fix statutory sick pay so that people who self-isolate have the proper financial support that they need? Also, how many people have applied for the £500 grant and how many people have been awarded it?

My Lords, in terms of the numbers or proportion of those isolating, a large number of figures is being bandied around. Some apply to last year and some to this year. I raise doubts as to whether anyone truly knows what the behaviours of people are, but I reiterate that UCL reports that 80% are self-isolating for the recommended 10 days or more, and that figure has some authority. In terms of the support that we are offering to people, we have taken on board the recommendations of noble Lords on the Opposition Benches and local authorities are using targeted support that suits the communities in which they work to provide that kind of support. We have provided substantial financial funding and resources for local authorities to provide the support needed.

Despite local authorities doing their best to support those self-isolating, good examples from Germany show that integrated health and care teams that visit people daily are vital to support people’s health and well-being in self-isolation. What has stopped the Government fully financing this integrated model across England?

We are hesitant to send teams of healthcare workers to people isolating because of the fear of infection. Obviously, having people attend those who have either tested positive or are the contacts of those who have tested positive does not comply with the latest hygiene protocol, but the noble Baroness is entirely right, and one way in which we could work harder is to use volunteers and community groups to provide pastoral and practical support for those isolating.

Have HMG any stats on or traced the people who have been in isolation due to positive test results, as well as the regulatory lock-ups, and who have either died or developed serious conditions from other related ailments, such as neurosis?

My Lords, we are extremely concerned about the mental health impacts of Covid on all those who are feeling the effects most harshly. A substantial amount of money has been invested by NIHR into the mental health effects of Covid, and it is up to the institute to find out the impacts to which my noble friend refers.

My Lords, it is a legal requirement to self-isolate if you test positive or are told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace. However, Test and Trace counts as having been traced those who live with someone who tests positive. I believe that this is a dubious method of counting. Will the Minister tell the House whether those people who have not been contacted directly by Test and Trace can therefore be penalised if they fail to self-isolate?

The method of counting is done in the way that it is at the moment because we did try the way that the noble Baroness recommends and that led to all sorts of confusion. It led to people having dozens of SMSs and being called relentlessly by the same staff because other members of their household had been identified. It led to a very large number of complaints, including from noble Lords on the Opposition Benches who read to me at great length the complaints of their contacts. We rationalised the system along the lines we currently implement, and that has led to a much more effective system. The feedback from our questionnaires to households is entirely positive. Having isolated myself, with my considerable household of seven people, I can tell noble Lords that it is a huge relief that the account management system is now around households rather than individuals.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lord, Harris of Haringey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that there was not time to take their questions. We now come to the second Oral Question.