Burnham: new strains will sweep through communities if government fails to fix self-isolation support

Date published: 15 February 2021

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham says experience of managing the Covid outbreak in Moss Side underlines the critical need for a comprehensive self-isolation support system.

Lack of income support and job protection for low-paid residents remains the “Achilles Heel” of Britain’s pandemic response, according to Mr Burnham.

The Government’s plans to release the lockdown and reopen the economy will not work unless it urgently fixes the self-isolation support scheme, the Mayor of Greater Manchester has warned. 

In Greater Manchester, teams working to contain an outbreak of the mutation of the Kent strain of the virus in Moss Side last week have identified the lack of a functioning, comprehensive self-isolation support scheme, offering job protection and income support, as the biggest weakness in the country’s defences against new, highly-transmissible strains of the virus. 

Doctor Aneez Esmail, a local GP and a practitioner at the University of Manchester, said: “It’s a deprived part of Manchester and a lot of people have got low paid jobs.

"A lot of them are working on zero hours contracts and, when you have to self-isolate, it’s easy for your employer to say well just don’t come in then and you lose everything.  

"I think that is the biggest problem.

"Unless we can find a means of supporting them, then people won’t.”

New figures from Greater Manchester’s 10 councils show that 47% of applications to the main self-isolation support scheme are successful and only 11% of those to the discretionary scheme, with eligibility criteria cited as the main reason. 

However, financial support is only part of the comprehensive package of support that is needed.

In August 2020, SAGE advocated the need for four components of structured self-isolation support to be in place in order to maximise levels of compliance:

Proactive information, social and clinical support

Sufficient supplies of food and other essential goods

Employment protection

Financial assistance

The Mayor is calling for the protection of the jobs of people who are self-isolating to be enshrined in law.

Mr Burnham said: “The lack of a proper self-isolation support scheme has always been the Achilles Heel of Britain’s response to the pandemic.

"It is now the single biggest hole in our national defences and the greatest threat to our ability to return to a more normal life in 2021.

“Our experience in Moss Side tells us that the country will not be able to contain these new, highly-transmissible strains if people cannot self-isolate instantly without fear of losing income or their job.

"Many workplaces based on low-wage, insecure employment - such as warehouses and food processing sites - have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic even though the support has never been in place to prevent the risk of spread.

"This is one of the reasons why COVID-19 has taken such a hold in some of our poorer communities.

“It is essential that the Government listens to SAGE and fixes this issue now in advance of any unlocking.

"It is not just a question of money.

"People need to be able to self-isolate safe in the knowledge that they will have a job to return to when their period of isolation is over.

"That job protection needs to be enshrined in law as well as providing full wage support for the lowest-paid.

”Failure to fix these problems will delay the reopening of the economy and the return of a more normal life, which so many people are desperately waiting to see.”

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