Experts split over £500 payment for people with Covid in England

A government proposal to pay £500 to everyone in England who tests positive for Covid-19 has been met with scepticism by the Treasury and divided opinion among experts.

The idea is described as the “preferred position” of the health secretary Matt Hancock’s department and is part of a planned overhaul of the self-isolation support scheme revealed by the Guardian.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, confirmed on Friday that the idea was under review and it is understood it will be considered by the government’s coronavirus operations committee in the next few days.

No 10 and the Treasury are sceptical about the idea of a universal payment, believing it could incentivise members of the public to contract the virus.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) policy paper, dated 19 January, plays down the risk of people trying to catch the disease so they can receive £500. It states: “It could possibly cause perverse incentives for some people who are not working to catch the virus in order to test positive and be paid £500, but the likelihood of this is considered low.”

A universal payment would cost the Treasury up to £453m a week, 12 times the current scheme, if there were 60,000 infections a day.

A Treasury source suggested polling had shown that the most common reasons for failing to self-isolate were not money, but the easing of Covid symptoms, and boredom or loneliness. They added that the £500 a month payout “won’t solve the problem it’s trying to solve”.

The Resolution Foundation thinktank welcomed the proposal and said only one in eight workers were currently eligible for the £500 lump sum if they were told to self-isolate. The main fund excludes many small business owners, sole traders, self-employed workers and parents whose children have been told to self-isolate.

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Maja Gustafsson, a researcher at the Resolution Foundation, said the current approach was not fit for purpose. “Swiftly putting in place a much more universal and generous system will make a real difference to controlling the spread of the virus,” she said.

Paying everyone who tests positive £500 to self-isolate could cost up to £453m – graphic

The overhaul has been prompted by Cabinet Office polling indicating that only 17% of people with symptoms are coming forward for testing, according to an “official sensitive” policy paper drawn up by the DHSC and seen by the Guardian.

Another survey carried out for the DHSC, discussed in the report, found that only one in four people reported compliance with self-isolation, with 15% going to work as normal. But in a survey by NHS test and trace last summer, 58% of people said they did not leave their home during self-isolation and 88% said they did not have close contact with anyone from outside their household.

Duncan Robertson, of Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics, said the policy could have unintended consequences. “We need to ensure that people are incentivised to come forward for a test, to self-isolate if that test is positive, and not to become infected to collect the bounty,” he said.

But Prof Stephen Reicher, who is advising the government’s coronavirus response, said universal payments to self-isolate must form an “essential element of our pandemic response”.

The Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) adviser told BBC News: “You can’t have a bureaucratic system, you can’t have a system where people don’t know whether they will get the support or not, it has to be immediate. The way to do that is to make it universal.”

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