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People told to self-isolate stopped from claiming £500 grant by flaw in contact tracing app

People told to isolate by the contact-tracing app are not able to claim government financial support, Sky News has learned, raising fears that low-paid workers will be forced to choose between health and hardship.

A leading poverty charity said the situation was “ridiculous” and Labour accused the government of putting families at risk of destitution.

Workers with low incomes on benefits are entitled to receive £500 if they cannot work from home while they self-isolate.

But a hidden flaw in the process for claiming the payment means they can only claim the support if they are given a code by a human contact tracer.

Someone who tests positive for coronavirus and receives their result through the app can get the payment because they will be referred to NHS Test and Trace for manual contact tracing by telephone call.

But anyone who is told to isolate by the app for people in England and Wales because they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 cannot claim the payment, even if they are entitled to it because the app’s privacy-protecting design means their identity remains secret.

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The news comes despite claims by the health secretary the “button is there on the app” to let people claim the payment.

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Sky News has confirmed that no such button exists, leaving low-paid workers at risk of missing out on crucial financial support.

Test and Trace sources say that the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) developed a plan for such a system at least two weeks ago.

But the feature, which would have allowed users to exit the app to make a claim, was not added, even though the app was rapidly gaining users. It has now been downloaded more than 18 million times, according to DHSC.

Asked why Mr Hancock claimed the button existed when it did not, a DHSC spokesperson said that he had been referring to manual contact tracing.

It is not known how many people have been affected by the issue, but Labour MP Rachael Maskell said the public health team in her York Central constituency were “inundated” with claims, and that the situation was “creating chaos” for local councils.

Jonathan Reynolds MP, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, told Sky News: “Complying with instructions to self-isolate should not push people and their families into hardship.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing and they should be enabled to self-isolate when required through financial support where it is needed.”

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Anna Stevenson of national poverty charity Turn2Us warned that without financial support people on low incomes would struggle to self-isolate.

“We all know that we need people to self-isolate and yet if they are told to self-isolate by a phone line they get support to do it and if they get told to self-isolate by an app, they don’t,” she said. “It is ridiculous.”

The £500 payment for low-paid workers asked to take time off work was a central part of the government’s plan to encourage self-isolation, introduced after studies suggested that less than 20% of people in England isolated when asked to do so by contact tracers, mainly for financial reasons.

Yet although the contact tracing app was launched on 26 September, two days before the new law on self-isolation came into force, sources working on the app say the two systems were never connected.

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A solution was drawn up by the app team and approved by NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England (PHE) at least two weeks ago, the source said, but work on the plan was held up because the Cabinet Office and Downing Street were concerned about the risk of fraud.

A Department of Health spokesperson told Sky News: “The NHS Covid-19 app is voluntary with users of it remaining anonymous, which means that currently, people are not eligible for the support payment if they are advised by the app to self-isolate because they have had close contact with someone who has tested positive.”

The spokesperson added: “We are actively exploring ways to expand the payment scheme to include this group of users.”

Steve Barclay, chief secretary to the Treasury, told Sky News “I wasn’t aware of that specific issue” but reiterated the support for those told to self-isolate.

He added the app was “easy to use” and claimed “it’s been very effective”.

Following a change in the law in England, it is now illegal for anyone told to self-isolate by Test and Trace to fail to do so. This does not apply to instructions from the app, which are advisory, not legally enforceable.

In order to be eligible for the self-isolation payment, workers need to be employed or self-employed, unable to work from home, and able to prove that they will lose income as a result of being forced to stop work.

They also need to be receiving one of a number of benefits, including Universal Credit and income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance.

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According to official statistics, just under four million workers in England were eligible for the payment, although this number may be rising as more people struggle to find work.

The amount of people receiving Universal Credit has almost doubled since February, jumping from 2.9 million to 5.7 million, despite extensive government support.

Test and Trace figures released Thursday show that less than 60% of close contacts of people who tested positive for coronavirus in England are being reached – the lowest weekly percentage since the service began.

And just 15% of people tested for COVID-19 in England at an in-person site are receiving their result within 24 hours.

In a Downing Street news conference, Boris Johnson confessed to “frustrations” with the system and admitted there is a need to “improve” it.

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