(Bloomberg) — U.K. government officials have suggested paying people to stay home if they test positive for coronavirus, amid concerns too many are failing to get tested or comply with the lockdown rules.
While the plan has not been given final approval, a draft government policy paper proposed payments of 500 pounds ($685). Currently only those on the lowest incomes receive support at this level if they’re told to quarantine.
England Isn’t Listening to Johnson’s Lockdown Orders Any More
The policy, which would cost about 2 billion pounds a month, would be designed to overcome people’s fear of losing income if forced to self-isolate by a positive test, according to a document dated Jan. 19 obtained by the Guardian and confirmed to Bloomberg by a person familiar with the matter.
Environment Secretary George Eustice called the idea “speculation” and said “no decisions have been made” when asked about the proposal in broadcast interviews on Friday. A person familiar with Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s thinking said the payments won’t happen and the proposal hadn’t been run past the Treasury.
When asked by reporters about the proposal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Jamie Davies, pointed to existing 500-pound payments to those on low incomes and said there are “no plans” to introduce an “extra” 500-pound payment. Johnson is due to hold a press conference at 5 p.m. on Friday.
“We do want to improve compliance rates with self-isolation for people who have been in contact with somebody who has tested positive, for instance, and we do want people to get that test if they have symptoms of the virus,” Eustice told LBC radio. “But this would also be a huge cost.”
Millions of Britons would struggle without their full pay check, and statutory sick pay is 95.85 pounds per week — a figure that compares poorly with the median household income of 575 pounds a week. Moreover, in the second quarter of last year, 1.1 million people, or 3.3% of total employment, were in employment on a zero-hours contract, meaning they don’t get paid if they don’t go to work.
The U.K. is in its third national lockdown with the highest death toll in Europe. The latest figures show 94,580 people have died in the U.K. within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19. Ministers have pledged to offer vaccines to 15 million of the most vulnerable people by Feb. 15, with the number already inoculated now surpassing 5 million.
While Health Secretary Matt Hancock has repeatedly said supply is the biggest constraint on the vaccination program, the government has refused to say how many doses of the Pfizer Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc vaccines its received. On Friday, Davies again declined to give figures. “There’s clearly a huge demand for vaccines around the world, so we’re not going to be commenting on vaccine supply and delivery schedules,” he said.
“It has never been our intention to hold massive stocks of the vaccine,” Davies said. “We are operating a just-in-time system which means that as soon as we get the vaccines, we get them out as quickly as possible” to vaccinate people, he said.
Johnson has signaled the lockdown could last until summer, despite demands from members of his Conservative Party for a plan to ease the restrictions from mid-February, or after the government has met its target to vaccinate the most vulnerable.
Shops, restaurants and schools are closed, and people have been told to stay at home unless absolutely necessary. The restrictions threaten to push the economy into another recession, after suffering its worst decline in three centuries.
Meanwhile only 17% of people with symptoms are coming forward for testing, according to the Jan. 19 policy paper, with the desire to avoid isolation the biggest barrier to requesting a test. Only a quarter of people reported compliance with self-isolation rules, while 15% are still going to work as normal, the Guardian cited the document as saying.
Ministers announced new fines of 800 pounds on Thursday for anyone attending a house party.
(Updates with comment from Johnson’s spokesman starting in fifth paragraph)
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