Can students get financial help to self-isolate?

Ensuring infected individuals and their close contacts isolate is one of our most powerful tools for controlling transmission.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

These aren’t my words – they’re the words from the (Westminster) government from the introduction to its “Test and Trace Support Payment”, a financial cushion designed to help those on low incomes adhere to self-isolation requirements without financial penalty.

There’s a number of groups that this really matters for – not least those in Houses of Multiple Occupancy, who SAGE argued last week need financial support to ensure that those required to self-isolate would not experience financial hardship in doing so.

SAGE agrees:

Students in quarantine (or self-isolation if tested positive or contact traced) require substantial support from their institution during the period. Failing to provide support will lead to distress, poor adherence and loss of trust.”

But as we noted here, the government’s £500 payment doesn’t cover most students as entitlement to that is dependent upon entitlement to universal credit.

However, as well as the main scheme, local authorities are invited to create a discretionary version of the scheme. In this part of the scheme local authorities can make a £500 discretionary payment to individuals who have been told to stay at home and self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace, and will face financial hardship as a result of not being able to work while they are self-isolating – ie plenty of students.

They would have to be employed or self-employed, unable to work from home and would lose income as a result and who are not currently receiving benefits like universal credit. The trouble is that local authorities are allowed to invent criteria to determine eligibility for discretionary payments in their area, as long as these operate in addition to, rather than instead of, the criteria above.

This means LAs could help students out. Students would have to have a job already – already a high and arguably unfair bar since we assume as a society that students will be seasonally employed – but nevertheless at least it’s possible.

So the question is – how are local authorities treating students? It’s not good news.

East Devon District Council seems to take the view that students would never need the money:

The scheme is focussed on low income workers. Students are principally students even where they have some part time work. Vulnerable student groups (with children or disabilities for example) would be eligible for welfare benefits and therefore supported under the main scheme.

City of York Council takes the view that the “grant” and loan will cover it:

All residents can claim with the exception of full-time students who are entitled to a grant or loan and who are excluded from claiming Housing Benefit

Portsmouth City Council dumps the problem onto the university:

Students who meet the qualifying criteria are eligible for the payment. To qualify you must be receiving benefits, be in work but unable to work from home and losing income as a result of self-isolation. There is also support available to students who are self-isolating through the University of Portsmouth.

Wealden District Council doesn’t even bother with that:

University students or those in further or other higher education are excluded from applying for a discretionary grant;

Ditto Dorset Council:

You must be resident full time at an address within the Dorset Council area – full time students are not eligible for this scheme

We’ve found one council that actually does positively mention students in their discretionary scheme – Birmingham City Council. But here you can see just how far the distortion surround the DfE £256m magic money twig has got:

Full time university students: Universities have been given over £250m in addition to their existing hardship funds to help students through the Coronavirus pandemic. If the university is unable to assist financially then students can apply provided, they meet the criteria.

How on earth have we reached a position where local councils think that universities have been given over £250m in addition to their existing hardship funds to help students through the pandemic?

If nothing else it looks to us like there could well be an opportunity for universities and SUs to do some local lobbying on the discretionary rules that are applying locally.

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