Payments to allow people with Covid symptoms to self-isolate need to be increased sharply or a return to normal life could lead to a resurgence in infections and deaths, ministers are being warned.
Two leading thinktanks have proposed that the government funds grants for employers and the self-employed, on a similar basis to the furlough scheme, to encourage more people to isolate.
Doctors, public health experts and opposition parties believe that low adherence to the request to self-isolate has been a major flaw in Britain’s response to the pandemic and allowed coronavirus to spread.
One recent study found that almost half of those displaying symptoms did not bother to stay at home, often because they could not afford to lose income from not working.
The Resolution Foundation and the Health Foundation are urging ministers to introduce a scheme in which employers could apply for a grant to cover the wages of any employee who needed to self-isolate, using a modified version of the existing coronavirus job retention scheme.
Self-employed workers would be able to obtain similar levels of support, also in the form a grant, through the self-employment income support scheme.
If implemented, the new payments system would cover 100% of a worker’s wages, capped at the equivalent of £2,500 a month, or £822 for a typical 10-day spell in isolation. That is equal to the cap used in the furlough scheme, which has subsidised workers’ wages since last year.
It would cost the government between £27m and £39m a month, a fraction of the £1.25bn monthly cost of the heavily criticised test-and-trace programme, the thinktanks said.
The amounts available for self-isolation have been too low, and therefore contributed to the virus spreading as people have continued to work to earn money, they argued.
“The support available for people to self-isolate has been a blind spot in our response to the pandemic. Compliance with test-and-trace requests to self-isolate are low, with evidence pointing to loss of income as a key barrier for people,” said Sarah Reed, a senior fellow at the Health Foundation.
“Without proper self-isolation support too many people have been put in the difficult position of choosing between doing the right thing or risking their livelihoods.
“Many other countries have not had this problem. Either they have more generous sick pay policies already, or they were quicker to put comprehensive self-isolation payments in place.
“For example, Austria, Finland and Germany cover 100% of lost earnings if they are self-isolating.”
A joint report by the thinktanks says that: “The £500 self-isolation support payments only cover about one in eight workers and statutory sick pay only covers a quarter of the average worker’s earnings, and misses out 2 million of the lowest-paid workers altogether.”
Reed said: “Now is the time to fix this weakness in our defence strategy. The pandemic is not over yet. Cases are expected to increase alongside easing restrictions, while new variants test us, and the ongoing vaccination campaign continues.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, has backed the plan. “Without fixing this gaping hole in our defences we risk undermining the work done to bring the virus under control. Ministers cannot afford to ignore calls to introduce proper sick pay. Our path out of the pandemic depends on it,” he said.The Department of Health and Social Care was approached for comment.