Everyone testing positive for coronavirus could be paid £500 by the government to self-isolate, under plans reportedly being considered by ministers.
The scheme, which would cost up to £450m a week, aims to encourage more people to take a test and to persuade those who test positive to stay at home, regardless of their financial situation.
The proposal, which is likely to alarm the Treasury ahead of Rishi Sunak’s budget, is said to be the “preferred position” in detailed policy paper at the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) and leaked to The Guardian.
Polling, the paper added, suggests many self-employed workers fear they will lose out financially if they comply with advice to self-isolate. It also indicated that only 17 per cent of people with symptoms are coming forward for testing.
An existing scheme offers £500 but only to those already registered to receive a means-tested benefit. Councils also have a discretionary fund, but strict eligibility rules mean few Covid patients have got a payout.
Research by The Independent revealed that in Liverpool 76 per cent of applications for the £500 were rejected.
Pressed on the reports, the environment secretary George Eustice said the government was considering “all sorts” of policies in an attempt to try and help individuals stick to the government’s self-isolation rules.
“We always had the £500 support payment for those that are on certain benefits,” he told the BBC. “We have always kept this under review and we know that it is sometimes quite challenging to ask people to isolate for that length of time.
“At the moment we are in full lockdown anyway so while people can leave to work, in many cases people will be staying home anyway. We constantly keep this under review. We have got to consider all sorts of policies.”
Last night the Department of Health and Social Care declined to deny the reports and a spokesperson said: “We are in one of the toughest moments of this pandemic and it is incumbent on all of us to help protect the NHS by staying at home and following the rules.
“All local authorities’ costs for administering the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme are covered by the government, and each authority is empowered to make discretionary payments outside of the scheme.
"Fifty million pounds was invested when the scheme launched, and we are providing a further £20m to help support people on low incomes who need to self-isolate.”
The Resolution Foundation, a think tank which has previously calculated that only one in eight workers qualify for the financial support currently offered to those told to self-isolate, welcomed the proposal.
Researcher Maja Gustafsson said: "The current approach is not fit for purpose with statutory sick pay among the least generous of advanced economies and far too few people eligible for the £500 support payments.
"Swiftly putting in place a much more universal and generous system will make a real difference to controlling the spread of the virus."