Plug isolation payment gap to stop South Africa variant, Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson tells the Health Secretary

3rd February 2021

Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson has questioned whether the government is likely to succeed at stamping out the new South African variant of the coronavirus.

Mr Esterson said in the House of Commons that people need to be able to afford to self-isolate at stay at home.

He told Health Secretary Matt Hancock that the gaps in financial support must be plugged.

Following a statement in the House of Commons from the Health Secretary today (Tuesday), where he mentioned another new strain of the virus found in Liverpool, Mr Esterson asked for clarification on the new Liverpool strain and for more support for people to isolate.

Mr Esterson said: “The Health Secretary will understand the concern about the discovery of the South African variant in the borough of Sefton. But I wonder if he can tell us what the variant is that he referred to, the cases in Liverpool. He also knows that a number of times I’ve raised the concern about the number of people who cannot afford to self-isolate or to stay at home. This is even more important now with the spread of new variants and of mutations. So will he tell me now that he is going to push his Cabinet colleagues to plug the gaps in financial support so that everybody can play their part, to stay at home to stop the spread of the virus?”

Mr Hancock responded: “We have it in place the £500 support to ensure that everybody can afford to self-isolate. On the question of the South African variant that has been discovered in Southport, and I would say that we are putting in place very significant action with the local authority to try to isolate that case and any spread and it is vital that all members of the community play their part – stay at home and get a test when it is offered by the local authority and there is more information on the Sefton website, and I would pay tribute to the MP for Southport, our colleague who wasn’t able to get on the call list, with whom I’ve been corresponding on this, and he has been playing an important part along with the Hon gentleman. The cases in Liverpool that I mentioned were in fact raised in the local media, and described by Liverpool council a couple of weeks ago, and I included them for completeness to describe all of those cases where we have seen a mutation along with the 11 cases in the Bristol area that we have, that I also describe that have been set out in a scientific study from the University of Leicester today. We’ve been working very closely with Liverpool City Council and with Bristol City Council on these two clusters along with the councils of all those where a variant of concern for instance like the South African variant has been found. I hope that’s a complete enough answer and I am very happy to talk to the Hon gentleman if he has any further questions.”

Sefton Council will start testing door to door in the Norwood area of Southport tomorrow (Wednesday) and aim to test 10,000 adults who live near to the case of the South Africa variant that could not be linked to any international travel.

Those who test positive and their close contacts will be asked to isolate for 10 days.

Only those who claim universal credit are automatically entitled to the £500 payment for 10 days’ isolation following a positive Covid test or after coming into contact with a positive case. But often these workers will lose much more in wages than they gain from the isolation payment.

And many workers are not entitled to the £500, because they do not qualify for universal credit, and receive only statutory sick pay of £95.85 per week off work while due to isolating.

Mr Esterson said that was a deterrent to getting tested.

Mr Esterson said: “The government has to look at isolation payments again. The countries that have done best at test, trace and isolate are those where sick pay is very near to what normal pay is. If people are going to be left at a financial disadvantage they will be less likely to come forward for testing, especially if they are asymptomatic.

“The government also has to be clearer about what this Liverpool strain is and whether this is another mutation which potentially spreads faster and is possibly more deadly. The Health Secretary suggested his answer was complete but I’m afraid it was not.”