Covid could become ‘disease of poverty’ if government does not raise sick pay, scientists warn

Independent Sage criticises Matt Hancock for suggesting it was ‘individual responsibility’ to stop disease

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 26 February 2021 14:11 GMT

Coronavirus could become a "disease of poverty" like tuberculosis and rickets if more is not done to support people on low incomes take time off work to self-isolate, a group of influential scientists have warned.

The latest report by Independent Sage admonishes health secretary Matt Hancock for suggesting that it "was a personal responsibility to behave in the right way" to avoid the disease.

This approach, they suggest, implies "that disease outcomes are due to individual choices rather than known structural factors, such as access to healthy food, housing and built environments that increase exposure and vulnerability to disease".

The government has so far resisted calls to provide significant support to people who need to self-isolated. The UK has one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe and existing extra measures to help people stay at home are only accessible to a small proportion of those asked to do so.

Professor Deenan Pillay of University College London, who sits on Independent SAGE said: “With regard to this moving towards becoming a disease of poverty, previous examples such as TB which depend on factors including overcrowding and poor nutrition provide models for what COVID could like in future unless issues associated with deprivation are comprehensively addressed.”

The group’s report criticises the fact that there was no mention of inequality in the government’s Covid-10 response Spring 2021 plan.

It suggests the state should provide “adequare financial, practical, and if required, extra accomodation to support self-isolation”.

On top of this, the report recommends stepping up workplace protection, investing in vaccine uptake in deprived areas, and increased long-term investment in local public health teams in deprived areas.

“Unless active measures are taken, the current association between areas with higher deprivation and proportions of ethnic minority groups and higher rates of, and harm from, COVID will become more pronounced as variation in vaccination uptake rates increases with decreasing age of vaccine recipients,” the report says.

Another member of Independent Sage, Doctor Zubaida Haque said: “At every turn the government’s strategy, or lack thereof, throughout this pandemic has failed to protect the most disadvantaged in society and sadly this Roadmap will only exacerbate the problem.

"While we welcome a phased approach out of restrictions, we are disappointed with the wholly inadequate funding for supported self-isolation.

"The absence of mitigation measures to ensure Covid-safe environments in work, schools and public places and insufficient extra resources for the most deprived areas will of course, continue Covid’s journey towards being a disease of poverty. We need a virus-suppression strategy which brings cases down and keeps them down. But we also need a strategy which leaves no one behind.”

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