Four in 10 people who needed financial support to self-isolate at the end of 2020 said they had not been able to access it, research suggests.
Issues included schemes or funding not always being available locally, eligibility criteria being too strict, a lack of awareness about discretionary support, and stigma associated with accessing help, the Red Cross said.
Low earners told to self-isolate by test and trace services across the UK are able to apply for a grant to support them while they stay at home. However, the Red Cross said there are growing concerns about inconsistencies across the schemes, which offer different levels of access to financial support.
One participant felt hopeful after being told by NHS Test and Trace she may be entitled to a £500 payment to help her and her family while they were self-isolating. But when she phoned the council, it said the scheme had not yet been rolled out in her area.
Overall, 43% of those who said financial support would have been helpful said they had been unable to access this support.
The Red Cross surveyed 2,000 UK adults and conducted 29 in-depth interviews with the public and professionals for its new report: The longest year: life under local restrictions. It covers the period between October and December, when tiered restrictions were in place and several UK nations entered periods of national lockdown.
The report identifies two groups who have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic – the “newly vulnerable” who have never needed help before and are struggling with stigma and knowing where to turn for support; and people struggling before the crisis who are now pushed to the brink.
For both groups, a lack of clear information about local rules exacerbated problems and led many to put themselves into “self-imposed” lockdown, limiting interactions with loved ones which compounded feelings of loneliness and isolation. A key lesson coming out of the pandemic must be to “normalise asking for help”, it said.
The polling found that 40% of UK adults were not confident about where to go to access financial support for essential items, despite 13% saying this would have been helpful to them under local restrictions.
Half of UK adults (50%) found it difficult to keep up to date with the latest coronavirus restrictions in their area and three quarters (74%) found it easier to limit how much they left home rather than try to keep up with changes to the restrictions.
Of people who are not confident that they can cope with or recover from the changes to their life caused by the pandemic, 71% cited their mental health as a key factor.
Norman McKinley, executive director of UK operations at the British Red Cross, said:
Our report shows the inextricable link between financial insecurity and mental health, and that the point at which someone faces hardship is a crucial moment to catch them before they fall into a more desperate situation.
When you feel like your life is spinning out of control, having agency over the small things – like the cereal you buy or the ingredients for your dinner – makes all the difference. We need flexible and easy-to-access cash support to give people back their dignity, while also giving them the breathing room to get back on their feet.
As we come out of the pandemic, we must develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be vulnerable and normalise asking for help – whether practical, emotional or financial.
The Red Cross is calling for the government to ensure emergency financial support is available and promoted through local welfare assistance schemes, including for people with no recourse to public funds. It said the government should give local authorities in England £250m per year to top up local welfare assistance schemes over the longer term. On top of that, it argued the government should review and “rapidly improve” self-isolation support schemes so eligibility is relaxed and simplified to allow for easier access.
The Red Cross has set up a free and confidential coronavirus support line on 0808 196 3651 for anyone who is lonely, worried, or in need of practical or emotional support during the pandemic.
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