“What we’re doing in addition to help people self-isolate, in addition to the £500 support and all the rest of it, is giving money, particularly to councils. I have a figure of £170m more to support them, to help them give people who really need it to self-isolate.”
That was Boris Johnson’s claim at Monday’s Downing Street press conference. He’d been asked why there was no new announcement in last week’s Budget to support self-isolators, despite seeming to suggest before the event that one would appear.
But there’s some important context missing.
Experts on the SPI-B committee told the government in September that more people would self-isolate if they were given adequate financial support.
A few days later, Downing Street announced the “Test and Trace Support Payment” – that’s the £500 Mr Johnson referred to on Monday. It’s a one-off lump sum for people on low incomes who are told to self-isolate and cannot work from home.
The issue resurfaced on 3 February when Test and Trace boss, Baroness Dido Harding, told MPs that one of the reasons people are not self-isolating – or not even coming forward for tests – is “financial support; that is, ‘I can’t afford to; I have to go out and work.’”
Keir Starmer challenged Boris Johnson on this at Prime Minister’s questions on 24 February. Mr Johnson replied that the Labour leader would “be hearing more about that next week from the Chancellor” at the Budget. It wasn’t entirely clear whether he was talking specifically about more money for self-isolators, or the government’s general “support for the poorest and neediest in our society”.
The missing context
Hearing this Monday’s exchange, you might think that the £170m for councils Mr Johnson refers to is new money.
In fact, he’s talking about the COVID Winter Grant Scheme, which was announced on 8 November last year. The funding was designed to be spent by the end of March 2021. A week before the Budget, the government said it would extend the scheme to cover the Easter holidays – it will now expire on 16 April 2021.
And it’s not clear how much of the COVID Winter Grant Scheme – if any – is specifically intended to help people self-isolate.
Neither the press release announcing the Winter Grant Scheme, nor the guidance for local authorities administering it, contain the words “isolate”, “isolation” or “isolating”. Councils have some discretion over how they spend the money, but 80 per cent must go towards “food, energy and water bills for household purposes”.
A government spokesperson told FactCheck: “The government has provided unprecedented support to the most vulnerable throughout the pandemic, with eligible people on a low income who cannot work from home receiving a payment of £500 if they have to self-isolate, through the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme.
“To date we have made £110 million available for the scheme and, as announced in the Prime Minister’s roadmap, we are extending it to the summer, as well as expanding eligibility criteria to cover parents and guardians who need to stay off work to look after a child who is self-isolating.”
(The £110m figure refers to what’s already been spent on the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme – not the COVID Winter Grant Scheme.)
Boris Johnson was asked this week why there were no new measures to support self-isolators financially at last week’s Budget. In his reply, he referred to a £500 one-off “Test and Trace Support Payment” for those told to self-isolate and a separate £170m package for councils, meaning the COVID Winter Grant Scheme.
What those watching the exchange may not have realised is that neither policy is new – they were both announced in the autumn. Indeed, the COVID Winter Grant Scheme is due to run out next month.
And while councils have some discretion over how they spend the Winter Grant Scheme money, it’s not clear how much, if any, is specifically meant to help people to self-isolate.
The government told FactCheck it has given “unprecedented support to the most vulnerable throughout the pandemic”.