Five ways to make sure everyone can afford to isolate safely

The government’s failure to support people to isolate threatens our public health

After seeing the highest daily death rates for the pandemic yet over the past few weeks, news headlines have focused on whether or not the public have followed lockdown rules. Illegal raves and house parties have been named and shamed. While many of us are suffering from lockdown fatigue, survey data indicates that nine in 10 people comply with most Covid-19 rules, and half comply with all the rules.

But the real problem is that many people are pushed into taking unnecessary risks within the rules, because they can’t afford to do otherwise. A government poll found that only 17% of people with Covid symptoms get tested. Not everyone can afford to miss two weeks of work to isolate safely after a potential exposure to the virus.

Instead of blaming individuals, here are five key changes the government could make to ensure everyone can isolate when they need to:

1. Increase unemployment support and create a new minimum income guarantee

There are currently three unemployed people for every vacancy. And many people who are in work don’t earn enough to live on: 38% of people on universal credit are in work. A weak safety net is increasing unnecessary public health risk, both by forcing unemployed people to look for jobs that don’t exist, and by forcing non-key workers to work as many hours as possible, often in unsafe conditions, to make ends meet.

The UK’s social security system provides far less support than other countries. Before the pandemic, people working on the national average wage in Latvia would receive 84% of their former wage if they lost their job. In Netherlands it was 74%, 69% in Belgium, and 68% in France. In Britain, you only receive 34% (see Figure 1), the third-lowest rate amongst OECD countries. Even in the US, for those with access to support, the average rate was 40%.

Figure 1: The UK has one of the lowest levels of unemployment support among richer nations. 

The government’s £20 boost to universal credit doesn’t go far enough. Introducing an emergency minimum income guarantee would provide the economic security that people need to self-isolate. This would be a non-conditional payment of £227 a week for any adult who needs it.

2. Increase sick pay as part of the minimum income guarantee

UK sick pay currently stands at just under £96 a week, unless you’re one of the two million people who usually earn less than £120 a week, in which case you get nothing. In contrast, if you were off sick with Covid in Canada or New Zealand, you would receive the equivalent of £287 or £308 a week, respectively. Even the US, famous for its threadbare social safety net, pays people full pay to isolate while they have Covid. The UK has the lowest mandatory Covid sick leave pay, as a percentage of previous earnings, of all OECD countries.

Increasing sick pay would mean people wouldn’t have to choose between staying home to protect others and being able to afford food and or pay their household bills. As part of the minimum income guarantee during this crisis, statutory sick pay should be raised to at least £227 a week.

3. Give struggling businesses more than loans

Non-essential businesses also need help to stay afloat without forcing their employees to come into work during lockdown. Lots of Covid support for businesses has come in the form of loans – but getting businesses further into debt jeopardises their long-term viability. Approximately a third of firms with Covid Business Interruption Loan Scheme and Bounce Back Loan Scheme loans may struggle to make repayments.

Helping closed businesses survive the crisis means that employees don’t have to come into work to prevent their employer from collapsing. As proposed by the Institute for Public Policy Research, an injection of public money, in exchange for a government stake in the company, could help absorb losses without damaging the long-term viability of a business, while potentially providing a future return to the government.

4. Support parents by raising child benefits and funding school meals and childcare

Even with more support for employees and businesses, many parents will still have to choose between working extra hours to make ends meet, and not feeding their kids or paying the rent. Many families don’t even have the option of increasing hours in the current crisis. Government funding to nurseries, meanwhile, does not cover the actual cost to nurseries of providing childcare. This increases fees for parents who pay for non-state-funded hours. The cost of childcare has risen four times faster than wages over the past decade, making it unaffordable for many.

Increasing financial support for families, such as through increases to child benefit, properly fund childcare, and increasing the value of free school meal packages, would reduce pressure on parents to go out and work when they should be isolating.

5. Increase support for renters with debt write-offs, increased housing benefits and an extended evictions ban

The National Residential Landlords Association has warned that 7% of renters have fallen behind on their payments during the pandemic, with young people and the self-employed particularly affected. The government must step-up support to help the estimated 840,000 people who are struggling to pay their rent. In Germany, renters don’t have to pay back rent arrears built up during the crisis until summer 2022.

The government should write off the debt that renters have accumulated during the pandemic, and extend the current ban on evictions beyond March. An increase in housing benefits would also support people to meet their housing costs. Providing housing security would help people afford to isolate when they need to.

Polling suggests that nearly six in 10 people believe the public is to blame for the current surge in Covid cases. But rather than blaming our neighbours, we should demand that the government gives people and businesses the economic security we need to combat the virus.

Image: iStock

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