Speaking to the Coronavirus Lessons Learnt meeting in parliament on 10 November, the head of Test and Trace, Dido Harding, told MPs: “All the evidence shows that people are not complying with isolation not because they don’t want to but because they find it very difficult.
“The need to keep earning and to be able to feed your family is a fundamental element of it which is why I think the financial support payment is a very good thing.”
The financial support that she refers to is the £500 isolation support payment which was introduced in September. But millions of workers, including thousands of Harding’s own frontline Test and Trace workers, are ineligible for even for that meagre payment.
According to government figures, around eight million workers remain ineligible for the support payment. If they have to isolate with suspected coronavirus, at best they would receive just £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay.
With higher infection rates, the Tories are finding it difficult to ignore the evidence that poverty wages and a lack of sick pay are driving astonishingly low levels of isolation compliance. An official estimate back in August was that fewer than 20% who had tested positive for infection were isolating properly. Another study has suggested 89 out of 100 people with suspected Coronavirus infection are breaking isolation rules.
Despite bearing the NHS brand, Test and Trace is run by a hodge-podge of private contractors. Safe and Equal has received reports that staff employed by G4S at Covid Test Centres are on zero-hour contracts with no rights to sick pay. Many of those workers will not be eligible for social security payments and therefore will not get the £500 isolation payment.
Even if a worker did meet the criteria for the £500 payment, they would still have to gamble income and future employment on the outcome of a positive test. Many, especially those who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, will not take that risk.
Moreover, only those people who are contacted by Test and Trace are eligible for the £500. Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that just 3% of people who should be isolating are being identified by Test and Trace.
Alongside G4S, Test and Trace have also given contracts to Amazon, Serco and other firms well known for their hyper-exploitative employment practices. The whole Test and Trace system has been set up to filter £10 billion of taxpayers’ money through many layers of sub-contracting, with dozens of private firms filling their profit margins, leaving very little for the workers on the ground.
Workers in the test centres are coming into close contact with dozens of Covid-positive people every day, and despite precautions are at high risk of contracting the illness. As long as they are also some of the workers least likely to be able to follow public health advice, that turns each Test Centre into a potential Covid hotspot.
Test-Trace-Isolate could be an important tool to allow us to return nearer to usual social life before the vaccine takes effect. By putting an ideological commitment to privatisation before rational planning, Harding and the government have created a system that is extraordinarily ineffective and may well be contributing to the spread of infection.
Test and Trace should be taken into public ownership and its workers should be employed on NHS terms and conditions. Even before that, Harding should insist that all companies operating under the Test and Trace banner pay full sick and isolation pay as an essential infection control measure. Without those basic rights, Test and Trace is undermining its own efforts to slow the spread of the virus.