Families on low incomes are avoiding the Covid-19 testing system because they cannot afford to isolate if they get sick, while red tape is hampering access to the government’s £500 compensation payments.
People in some of the most deprived areas of England, including Middlesbrough, Liverpool and the London borough of Newham, are less likely to request a coronavirus test.
According to the CIPD, the association of HR professionals, when people on low incomes do self-isolate, they find it difficult to access the NHS Test and Trace support payment scheme. Freedom of information releases from 34 local authorities show that only a third of claims were granted.
Dr Wanda Wyporska of charity the Equality Trust said people avoided testing for a range of reasons, from caring responsibilities to employment worries. “Some people have said they’re not going to take the test, because if they are told to isolate, they won’t be able to work,” she said.
Middlesbrough council said local testing data showed low take-up of PCR swab tests in the most deprived wards in the city, but higher levels of positive tests. The council plans to roll out rapid lateral flow tests at sites across the city in the coming days and said it will focus on those wards.
In Liverpool, more than half of people in affluent areas in the south of the city were being tested during the lateral flow testing pilot scheme, but take-up in deprived areas in the north of the city was far lower.
Data from Transport for London shows that tube stations in deprived areas are still busy. Before the pandemic, Dagenham Heathway station, in one of east London’s poorest areas, and Highgate station in north London, where the average house costs more than £1.4m, both used to see about 19,000 journeys on weekdays. Last week, Dagenham Heathway averaged about 6,000 journeys (32% of pre-pandemic levels), while Highgate saw about 2,200 (11%).
Research to be published by Newham council later this month shows that nearly three-quarters of people say a guarantee that they would not lose their job would make them more likely to self-isolate.
Jason Strelitz, director of public health for Newham, said his team first began to notice the problem when they tried to set up a pilot study testing asymptomatic people in high-risk occupations. “We looked at retail and drivers, and we couldn’t get people to engage,” he said. “It was quite clear that people didn’t want to get tested because they didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of a positive test.
“The decision to self-isolate is a very limited, narrow, private benefit. You’ve got it or you’ve been identified as a close contact. It’s not about your health; it’s about reducing transmission to the community. And I think if we’re going to ask you to do that, we need to recognise that that sits very differently with people depending on their work conditions.”
The growth of the gig economy in areas like Newham has resulted in hidden and unmeasured costs, according to Wyporska, who points out that the £500 compensation will not go far for a family whose breadwinner is off work for two weeks.
“There is a huge penalty if you don’t turn up to work. If you’re not seen as reliable, you go to the bottom of the pile,” she said. Managers will swiftly turn to someone who is available. “With some algorithms, if you’re not showing up for some time, that affects the amount of work you get.”
Shrinking employment rights and limited access to tribunals mean that workers whose ties to their employers and customers are frayed to insignificance are less likely to comply when asked to act for the benefit of the public.
Wyporska said: “Who’s checking if an Uber driver or a Deliveroo person is positive or not? It’s not in their interests to know. And even if they do know, they might carry on working. What incentive do people have to take a test that might deprive them of their income?”
The government says it has given local authorities £70m to cover test- and-trace isolation payments, but many councils say they have already spent the money. People on low incomes who receive some benefits can apply, and those not on benefits can also get “discretionary” payments.
Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy, said: “Our research shows that if you are a low-income person who is working, you can have no confidence you will be compensated if you self-isolate, and the process is so complex that you might be put off from claiming it in any case.
“There is also high variability in how the compensation scheme is applied across the country. We have to ensure that people contacted by NHS Test and Trace don’t lose out financially for doing the right thing. It’s a crucial part of the system, which is why we’re calling for an urgent review – and it’s compounded by the fact that statutory sick pay is so low.”