FEWER than one in three people in Scotland who applied for a grant to help them to self isolate were provided with funding, with approval rates as low as one in six in some council areas.

Figures obtained by the Herald on Sunday under freedom of information show that there were 16,546 applications for the £500 payment from its launch on October 12, up until January 31 this year.

The cash was supposed to help those on low incomes to “do the right thing” and stay at home if they had tested positive for the virus or been told by contact tracers to self-isolate due to potential exposure.

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However, just 4,754 applications (29 per cent) were approved, with huge variation between areas.

In North Lanarkshire and Glasgow City, two council areas with among the highest deprivation levels in Scotland, just 15% and 19% respectively of people who applied for a self-isolation grant received the payment, compared to 70% of those in East Renfrewshire - one of Scotland’s most affluent areas.

Nearly half (47%) of applications were granted by Edinburgh City Council, 39% in Aberdeen, and 38% in Dundee.

Inverclyde, the most deprived council area in Scotland, approved 41% of applications, while West Dunbartonshire - the fourth most deprived area and hardest hit by Covid deaths - approved 23%.

A spokesman for North Lanarkshire Council said its rejection rate appeared unusually high because it had used an online applications system which allowed anyone to apply, even if they did not meet the criteria.

“Other local authorities use paper-based applications and people who do not meet the qualifying criteria are filtered out before the applications are processed for consideration,” he said, adding that since the Scottish Government updated the guidelines in February - expanding eligibility - the council is “seeing an improvement in the number of successful applications as more people now qualify under the low-income category”.

HeraldScotland: People who test positive are expected to be able to self-isolate from others in their own homePeople who test positive are expected to be able to self-isolate from others in their own home

Applications can be refused on various grounds, but were mostly knocked back due to problems like lack of evidence of a positive test or loss of income, being too late, or the individual not being on Universal Credit.

This was revised in November so that people whose income was low enough to qualify for Universal Credit, but were not in receipt of the benefit, could still be paid, and in mid-February the criteria was extended again by the Scottish Government to give people up to 28 days to apply and to cover workers earning £9.50 an hour or less.

Nonetheless, the high rejection rates during 2020 - which were mirrored in England and Wales - led the Trade Unions Congress to blast the scheme as “too patchy, too strict, and riddled with problems”.

HeraldScotland: Research has shown that people living in more deprived neighbourhoods are much less likely to be in occupations where they can work from homeResearch has shown that people living in more deprived neighbourhoods are much less likely to be in occupations where they can work from home

Figures suggest that many people who would have qualified probably did not apply at all, with almost 140,000 people testing positive in Scotland between October 12 and January 31 - the peak of the second wave - but just 12% seeking financial support.

Those in low-paid jobs which cannot be done from home, such as delivery drivers, factory workers, builders, and home carers, are known to be at greater risk of catching as well as dying from Covid, but many do not earn enough to even qualify for statutory sick pay and even those that do still could not afford to stay home for 10 days without certainty of a £500 subsidy.

In the UK, around two million low paid workers are not entitled to statutory sick pay of £95.85 a week.

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Professor Stephen Reicher, an expert in crowd psychology at St Andrews University and an advisor on behavioural science for UK Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), said the high rejection rate “is worrying” partly because it “puts people off” applying at all.

“Test and trace is pointless without self isolation,” said Prof Reicher.

“In many ways, self isolation the most important thing of all, because one person who is infected and walking around the community can cause very large numbers of outbreaks.

“There’s also some evidence that lack of support for self-isolation impacts on testing, and on revealing your contacts, because of course if you’re thinking that if you test positive you’ll have to self-isolate - and you can’t afford to self-isolate - the way around it is not to get tested.

“It’s a bit strange to put all this money and effort into tracing people if you don’t make it feasible for them to self-isolate.”

HeraldScotland: Professor Stephen ReicherProfessor Stephen Reicher

Prof Reicher says self-isolation funding should be more generous, universal, and come with an allocated support worker who could coordinate everything from dog walking to help with caring responsibilities for those who need it.

He said: “Money is important, but money is only one small part of it.

"If you have caring responsibilities for children or elderly parents money won’t really help - what you need is a support package which makes [self-isolation] possible.

"And a final thing: you need people to self isolate immediately. Time is of the essence.

"So any system which is unwieldy, where even if you get the support you have to spend days applying for it, and you don't know if you'll get it or not, is never going to work."

In Australia, people are paid up to A$1500 (£840) to self-isolate for 14 days if doing so means they cannot work, will lose income, and are not entitled to sick pay.  

In South Korea, anyone told to self-isolate is automatically entitled to the equivalent of £270, with Taiwan also paying a universal stipend of £25 a day and citizens' compliance monitored through a 'digital quarantine' which tracks their mobile phone movements. Breaches - which are rare - are heavily fined, but all isolators are also supported with regular home deliveries of food and medicines. 

A spokesman for the Poverty Alliance in Scotland said the process of accessing support had to be straightforward and consistent, with all means-testing removed if necessary.

He added: "The pandemic has tightened the grip of poverty on the lives of people across Scotland, and for many, self-isolation grants represent a critical form of support to prevent them from being pulled deeper into hardship in the result of having to isolate.

"So these findings are concerning, and raise questions about whether people are receiving the support to which they are entitled."

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A report in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) this month, co-authored by Scottish Government Covid advisor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, Professor Devi Sridhar, also stressed that “providing accommodation is particularly important given the heightened risk of household transmission and difficulties of isolating when living in large, crowded, and multigenerational households”.

In New York, hotel accommodation, food delivery, pet care, and financial support are offered automatically to anyone testing positive.

HeraldScotland: In New York City people who have tested positive for Covid are offered hotel rooms and dog walking servicesIn New York City people who have tested positive for Covid are offered hotel rooms and dog walking services

In Denmark and Norway, local governments offer accommodation to anyone unable to isolate at home - for example, if they would have to share a bathroom or bedroom with others.

In February, Newham Council - one of the worst hit burghs in London - became the first local authority in the UK to begin offering hotel rooms routinely to Covid-positive people living in overcrowded accommodation as part of a two-month pilot.

Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament in May last year that free hotel rooms would be provided “in extremis” to people unable to isolate at home.

However, freedom of information disclosures reveal that this has been done no more than 11 times during 2020/21, and never by most councils.

READ MORE: Quarantine hotels 'not enough' without better support for self-isolation

North Ayrshire provided accommodation three times; Aberdeen once; Shetland “no more than five times”; Highland twice; and Argyll and Bute once.

Although cases are falling and vaccinations are working, effective self-isolation will only become more important as Scotland works towards a goal of 'eliminating' the virus.

The situation parallels that of international travel, in the sense that imported cases make a minor contribution to the epidemic when community prevalence is already high - but once driven to low levels, as it was last summer, can 'seed' a new wave of cases.

Likewise, ensuring people can and do self-isolate becomes pivotal to containing - or losing control of - an outbreak once virus rates are at their lowest.

HeraldScotland: Professor Devi SridharProfessor Devi Sridhar

As Prof Sridhar and colleagues put it: "Without effective policies enabling people to safely self-isolate and quarantine, the success of test and trace infrastructures is jeopardised."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said £2.4 million in grants has been paid out to help those who would face financial hardship.

She added: “Self-isolation is an essential part of controlling the spread of the virus.

"That is why we have continued to improve this benefit, in order to help more people to stop the spread of Covid.

"This includes significantly widening the criteria and also extending the time period during which people can apply to 28 days after they are told to isolate."