Wales needs a better Self-Isolation Support Scheme

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How well are we supporting low paid workers in Wales who are being told to self-isolate? The answer, at the moment, is probably not well enough.

As many of us have experienced by now, self-isolating can be hugely challenging – and that can include the financial impact of not being able to go to work. Our research with YouGov has found that one in five (21%) people in Wales say that 10 days isolating would have a negative financial impact. For many lower paid workers that rises to almost half (43%).

If we had a decent sick pay system in the UK then we wouldn’t have this problem. But we actually have one of the worst systems among comparable countries.

Comparative sick pay across different countries

The TUC’s new Sick pay that works report details what is wrong with the UK approach and how it can be fixed.

But, in the meantime, the Welsh Government is left having to patch things up as part of the Covid response with the £500 Self-Isolation Support Scheme. The main element of this scheme is only open to workers in receipt of certain benefits. This severely limits its coverage and effectiveness – with the Resolution Foundation finding that only 1 in 8 workers qualify.

There has been significant coverage this week of the failings of the £500 self-isolation scheme in England. The Welsh scheme – which is very similar to the English one in most respects – shares many of those failings. It should be added, however, that Wales has used a more sensible mechanism for funding local authorities to administer the programme and has therefore avoided some of the worst examples of councils running out of money or having to severely limit access to the discretionary part of the fund.

Even so, the latest data suggests that only 30% of applications to the fund in Wales are successful. The most generous interpretation of that figure is that the scheme is poorly understood by the public. But the numbers of successful applications are extremely concerning when we know that around half of those who cannot work from home do not get their usual pay when they’re off sick.

With 7,439 grants awarded between October 23rd (the earliest eligible date) and 22nd January, that suggests that about £1.2m is going towards helping roughly 2,500 stay at home each month – a seemingly very modest amount for such an important scheme during a period when infection rates have been astronomical.

It’s not a coincidence that the countries with the best record on Covid have taken this issue seriously. New Zealand offers the equivalent of about £315 a week regardless of income as do Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. While Finland guarantees 100% of lost income.

Closer to home, the Scottish Government has this week recognised the need to do more. They have broadened the payments to anyone who is earning the Real Living Wage (£9.50) or below. This move will mean 200,000 more people will be able to get help.    

We should now follow this lead in Wales. It’s a fairer and simpler approach than our current model. We also need to make sure that the help available is communicated effectively to all who need it.

Studies have consistently shown that when it comes to self-isolating there is a gap between what people want to do and what they actually do. Moralising and reprimanding people for not following the regulations is pointless and counterproductive if we’re not giving people the proper financial help that they need to do so.

With the vaccines now offering hope for a way out of the crisis we should be maximising every scheme possible to limit the spread of the virus – and the Self-Isolation Support Scheme is currently an underused and undervalued tool in helping us do that.