The government is considering a universal payment of £500 to everyone in England who tests positive for Covid-19 and needs to self-isolate.
According to a document seen by The Guardian newspaper, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has costed out four potential ways to revise the current system and reduce the spread of coronavirus by infected workers.
The proportion of people with Covid-19 symptoms coming forward for a test
A universal pay-out would cost as much as £453m per week, 12 times the cost of the current system.
At present, workers are eligible for a £500 support payment if they are asked by NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate and cannot work from home. They must also be in receipt of benefits such as Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit to qualify.
Last week the CIPD urged the government to review the scheme after Freedom of Information requests to local authorities found that only one in three claims for the current pay-out are successful, leading to a “postcode lottery” for successful claims.
A recent government poll found that only 17% of people with Covid-19 symptoms were coming forward to get a test, with many fearing they will lose work and wages if they test positive and need to self-isolate for 10 days.
The policy paper concludes: “Wanting to avoid self-isolation is now the single biggest reported barrier to requesting a test.”
It also contains a recommendation to stop the £500 payments to contacts of infected people identified by NHS Test and Trace, and that people self-test so they can return to work if the result is negative.
The universal £500 payment to anyone who tests positive is the most generous option outlined by the policy paper.
It says: “Anyone who tested positive for Covid-19, irrespective of their age, employment status or ability to work from home, would be eligible for TTSP [Test and Trace Support Payment]. This would be straightforward for local authorities to administer, though it would lead to significantly greater volumes of applications than under the current scheme.”
The second option is to offer the payment to someone who tests positive but cannot work from home, which would cost £244m per week. A third possibility is to provide it for those who earn less than £26,495 a year or who receive means-tested benefits. This would cost £122m a week. The final option is to continue with the current scheme but expand discretionary funding to councils.
With such low referral rates for testing, there are grave concerns that infected employees are continuing to go into work in order to avoid losing wages, increasing the chances of spreading the virus.
A further controversial proposal is to share positive test data with the police, meaning someone who breaches isolation rules when infected could face prosecution.
The proposals will be discussed today (22 January) in a coronavirus operations committee, according to The Guardian.
A DHSC spokesperson responded: “All local authorities’ 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.
“Fifty million pounds was invested when the scheme launched, and we are providing a further £20m to help support people on low incomes who need to self-isolate.
“We also recognise the impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health and wellbeing which is why mental health services have remained open throughout the pandemic.”