COVID-19 app payment loophole won’t be fixed by the end of lockdown

People who are told to isolate by the contact tracing app will not be able to claim financial support after lockdown ends, and may not be able to before Christmas, Sky News can reveal.

Workers with low incomes in England are entitled to receive £500 if they cannot work from home while they self-isolate, but they can only claim the support if they are given a code by a human contact tracer.

Leaked documents seen by Sky News reveal that a technical fix has been drawn up and signed off by the Treasury and Downing Street.

Yet delays in its implementation mean it will not be in place for the end of England’s lockdown on December 2, and may not arrive for several weeks after that, despite fears that contacts will increase over the holiday period.

From a leaked document, which shows the plan for the proposed fix
Image: A leaked document shows the plan for the proposed fix

Labour called on the government to fix the loophole, which was first revealed by Sky News on 22 October, at which point the Department of Health had been aware of the problem for at least a fortnight.

“It’s staggering that those using the Covid-19 app still can’t access support to self-isolate – even if they’re eligible for the payment,” shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds told Sky News.

“The prime minister must get a grip and fix this broken system before the Christmas period.”

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A Test and Trace source said the delay in implementation came from the app’s developers, who are under pressure to update it to reflect changes in quarantine policy and make it compatible with new rapid tests.

This follows a long hold-up as approval for the fix was sought from several government departments, including Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, where officials raised concerns about fraud before finally passing it to the Treasury. The plan was finally signed off last Thursday at the government’s weekly COVID-19 operations committee.

As the proposed solution got bogged down in the sclerotic Whitehall approval process, Health Secretary Matt Hancock even claimed there was a “button” on the app to let people claim the payment. A Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) spokesperson later claimed he had been referring to manual contact tracing.

A leaked document entitled “proposed solution for app users to claim self isolation support payment” shows that app users who want to claim the £500 grant will be emailed a code from the contact tracing system.

They will then be directed to their local authority’s website, where they will be able to enter their code and bank details, and undergo a check which will show whether or not they are receiving benefits.

The architecture of the app, which is built using privacy-protecting technology from Google and Apple, means that it is not possible to do this directly in the app, but the document shows that a relatively simple process exists for users to leave the app to claim the payment.

Test and Trace does not release details about how many people have been advised to quarantine by the app, but a number of users have said that they have been denied the payment as a result of the loophole.

“I’m self-employed and had to miss out on jobs that can’t be rescheduled, so it has cost me with no option of reimbursement,” one app user who couldn’t claim the support grant told Sky News.

Test and Trace head Dido Harding has been self-isolating since last Wednesday after being sent a notification by the app.

According to the Test and Trace source, the approval process for the payment fix was moved forward after Baroness Harding posted about her notification on Twitter, where replies reminded her that low-paid workers might not be able to claim the government support grant.

Asked why the introduction of a solution was being delayed, a DHSC spokesperson said: “Self-isolation is vital to stop the spread of the virus. NHS Test and Trace contact tracers will inform those who are eligible of the potential support available, including where they need to go to apply.

“We have also provided support for local authorities to advertise the scheme through their own networks, and we are actively exploring ways to expand the payment scheme to include those who are advised by the app to self-isolate because of close contact with somebody who has tested positive.”

Local councils have the ability to make discretionary payments to people who cannot access the £500 payment but cannot work from home and will still face hardship when self-isolating.

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