(Bloomberg) — A U.K. government plan to boost support for people who need to self-isolate in the pandemic does not go far enough to properly prevent the spread of coronavirus and new variants, scientists and local leaders warned.
Pilot programs were announced in nine areas of England this week to encourage people to stay home for 10 days if they contract Covid-19 or come into contact with someone with the disease. The 12-million-pound ($17 million) initiative includes accommodation for people in overcrowded households, language support and “buddying” services to provide mental health support.
The aim is to spur people most at risk of catching and transmitting coronavirus to come forward for testing and self-isolate if they’re positive. Reducing transmission is critical to getting the virus under control and to make it harder for it to mutate into a form that could be resistant to vaccines.
A rise in cases, or the emergence of a new variant, could also knock Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to lift most restrictions on June 21 off course.
But critics say adequate financial support should have been in place from the start of the pandemic — and for the whole of the country — and that the pilot programs won’t fully address the problem.
The Department of Health didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The U.K. government currently offers 500 pounds for people on low incomes who have to isolate. Only one in eight workers is eligible for the “paltry” payment while the success rate of applicants is little more than a third, said Stephen Reicher, a psychology professor at the University of St Andrews who also advises the government on behavioral science in the pandemic.
Though he tentatively welcomed the pilot programs, he said the funding and scope stopped far short of what is needed.
“It is clearly very late, it repeats the danger of being far too little,” he said. “If people doubt whether they will get support, they may avoid getting tested so as to avoid the possibility of being required to isolate.”
The government has been warned throughout the pandemic about the issue. Dido Harding, the former head of England’s test-and-trace program, said in February during the second wave of infections that at least 20,000 people a day were failing to self-isolate properly — partly due to financial difficulties or practical reasons such as needing to get food.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs Parliament’s health committee, said financial support should be boosted to make up for all lost earnings over the 10 days of self-isolation.
“The new pilots are welcome but we will need to look at the financial disincentives to isolating if we are to crack this problem,” he said.
Likewise Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester — which has seen a recent surge in cases — told reporters on Tuesday the pilots would still not make up for “people’s loss of income.”
Frustrated at the central government’s offer, many local authorities have already put their own support programs in place. In Lambeth, south London, people are entitled to claim up to 738 pounds — and the eligibility criteria has been widened to anyone earning up to 30,000 pounds a year.
Free hotel rooms are also available for those who can’t stay with big families or flatmates, and the council has teamed up with a charity to offer help with grocery shopping, dog walks, or collecting medicines.
Ruth Hutt, Lambeth’s director of public health, said a “really high number” of people who weren’t eligible for the central government package, particularly those who work in the gig economy. Reducing some of the evidence required to access the program also boosted the number of applicants, she said.
“If you feel the risk of getting a positive test is you would be unable to go to work and therefore you’d be not paid, then it becomes a barrier to testing as well,” Hutt said. “Self-isolation support is fundamental.”
Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, said the government pilots are happening too late: “Clearly, this level of support would have benefited people earlier and throughout the pandemic.”