Speaking to a parliamentary committee on 10th November, 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 the payments.
According to government figures around 8 million workers remain ineligible for the support payment and if they have to isolate with suspected Coronavirus at best they would receive just £95.85 a week Statutory Sick Pay. This puts them under extreme financial pressure to continue to work when they should be isolating and as Harding admits, is one of the key reasons why 4 out of 5 people breach 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 these 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.
Alongside G4S, Test and Trace have also given contracts to Amazon, Serco and other firms well known for their hyper-exploitative employment practices. In fact, 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 and leaving very little left over for the workers actually doing the work 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. They are also some of the workers least likely to be able to follow public health advice turning each Test Centre into a potential Covid hotspot.
Test and Trace should be taken into public ownership and its workers should be employed on NHS terms and conditions. As a step towards 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 these basic rights, Test and Trace is undermining its own efforts to slow the spread of the virus.