The vast majority of Conservative voters are among those backing a big increase in the support given to those self-isolating, with some of the government’s own advisers warning that the level of help on offer remains the “huge gaping hole” in the UK’s Covid response.
With the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, set to announce a continuing support package in just a few weeks as the UK contemplates the process of loosening lockdown measures, almost three-quarters of Tory voters believe that workers should be awarded full pay while self-isolating.
Under current rules, anyone self-isolating can apply for a £500 grant to help them, but many are turned down. There have been a series of calls to increase statutory sick pay, which currently stands at just £95 a week.
Handing people full pay while self-isolating is backed by 76% of voters overall, according to polling commissioned by the RSA, the Royal Society for arts, manufactures and commerce. It includes 74% of Tory voters and 81% of Labour backers. There is also backing for other areas of state support. A majority of Tory (62%) and Labour (70%) voters back an extension of the furlough scheme, expected to be contained in the budget. Maintaining the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit is also backed by 51% of Conservative voters.
Alan Lockey, the head of the RSA’s future of work programme, said there was “really strong support for eradicating the awful choice many workers face between feeding their family and following the government’s guidelines”. He added: “People recognise it will take a tremendous effort to deliver good and secure work after the pandemic, so there is a clear case for maintaining conditional furlough support, alongside generous retraining policies, as we recover.”
Sunak’s budget on 3 March is again set to be dominated by measures to shore up jobs and support the economy. However, there is frustration among many scientists over the efforts to encourage self-isolation among people who test positive for the virus. Prof Theresa Marteau, director of the behaviour and health research unit at the University of Cambridge and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the system was currently insufficient.
“When we start to ease restrictions, enabling as many people as possible to self-isolate when they are infected with coronavirus will be core to keeping transmission rates low and in turn the risk of more lockdowns,” she said. “Willingness to self-isolate is high across social groups but the ability to self-isolate is not. Lower rates of self-isolation are reported for those in lower socioeconomic groups, those in precarious jobs, younger people and those living with dependent children.
“The financial support currently available – while sufficient for some – is insufficient or inaccessible to others. Packages of support that addressed not only the financial but also the practical and emotional barriers to self-isolation would increase rates of self-isolation and thereby lower infection rates. For example, a paper published last week on infections in care homes found reduced transmission from staff was associated with adequate sick pay.”
She added: “Given some people avoid taking tests because they are unable to self-isolate, such packages could also increase uptake of tests.”
Prof Stephen Reicher, who sits on the government’s behavioural science advisory group and has repeatedly called for better support, said self-isolation was “possibly the single most important measure”.
“It is the huge gaping hole in our response and it is increasingly obvious that lack of self-isolation is due to lack of support,” he said. “In places where support is adequate, self-isolation is much higher. Finance is part of that support, but only one part.
“There is good evidence that the issue of self-isolation impacts on all aspects of the testing system. Poorer people are less likely to get a test and less likely to reveal their contacts because they and their mates can’t afford to be positive.”
A government spokesperson said: “We recognise this is an incredibly difficult time for many people and we launched the test-and-trace support payment to provide financial support to people that need to self-isolate but cannot work from home.
“Lives are at stake and it is imperative that people self-isolate when they are asked to. We have made £70m available to local authorities through the scheme so far and local councils are empowered to make discretionary payments to provide more support to those that need it most.”