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Pinged to self isolate? These are your financial rights

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Millions of us are at risk of being ‘pinged’ by the controversial NHS Covid 19 app and being told to stay at home for ten days.

After restrictions were eased this week, the Government expects a surge in demands to self-isolate from the contact-tracing app, which has been downloaded more than 26 million times.

But legal loopholes mean workers and consumers could be out of pocket if they do the right thing and stay at home.

Punished: Legal loopholes mean workers and consumers could be left out of pocket if they do the right thing and stay at home after they've been 'pinged' by the NHS Covid app

Punished: Legal loopholes mean workers and consumers could be left out of pocket if they do the right thing and stay at home after they’ve been ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app

Users of the NHS smartphone app who were close to someone who later tests positive for coronavirus are alerted and advised to stay at home for as many as ten days. 

But double-jabbed critical workers, such as frontline NHS staff, can now avoid self-isolation with a negative test.

Crucially, anyone ‘pinged’ by the app is not legally required to self-isolate — which means they are not guaranteed financial support if they cannot work, or refunds for any bookings they have to cancel as a result.

Yesterday, Downing Street insisted it was ‘crucial’ to self-isolate in response to a ‘ping’, after business minister Paul Scully said it should be a matter for individuals and employers to decide.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are among more than 1.7 million people currently self-isolating after being ‘pinged’ by the app or contacted by NHS Test and Trace. In the first week of July alone, more than 500,000 people were told to self-isolate.

The charity Citizens Advice says its webpage for guidance on self-isolation is getting 25 times more views than it did in May, and now has nearly twice as many visits as any other page on its site. 

There has also been a surge in views of its webpage explaining financial support available to those self-isolating.

The NHS Covid 19 app, which uses a Bluetooth signal to estimate how close a user has been to someone who tests positive for the virus, has been widely criticised for damaging the economy by forcing businesses to shut and frontline services to suffer.

This month, Health Secretary Sajid Javid ordered a review of the app. Yet the rules, which apply even to the fully vaccinated, are likely to stay in place until at least August 16.

In the meantime, campaigners are calling for an end to the confusion caused by the ‘pingdemic’, with clearer government guidance on what employers and businesses are expected to cover.

Morgan Wild, interim head of policy at Citizens Advice, says: ‘People need to hear that they are not going to lose out financially for doing the right thing.

‘We try to guide people through this but it’s a confusing system.’ But what if self-isolation would cause you financial problems? Where do you stand?

Here, we explain how to take the sting out a ping…

NHS app is eating into our earnings 

Kristina Louden has seen four of the singers for her small theatre firm 'pinged' by the NHS app

Kristina Louden has seen four of the singers for her small theatre firm ‘pinged’ by the NHS app

 By HELENA KELLY

Kristina Louden’s small outdoor theatre business has been plunged into chaos by the ‘pingdemic’.

The 35-year-old provides outdoor musical performances through her company, Street Theatre.

But four of her singers have been pinged by the NHS app in the past fortnight, and she has lost thousands of pounds in earnings. 

Her workers, who are employed on a freelance basis, missed out on vital pay.

Kristina, from Wandsworth, South London, says: ‘I have had to pay outrageous fees to get singers to cover at the last minute. 

‘In the end I’m giving all my profit away to those last-minute fees because we are quite a new business and the last thing I want to do is cancel bookings.

‘It’s tough for the singers, too, who do all sorts of part-time jobs to generate income. Isolating can really cost them. 

‘One of my singers had to miss a television performance this week due to the app.’

Kristina set up her business in March this year after her second child was born. 

But she says the app has made her worried about committing to certain events: ‘My husband and I have to be quite selective about what we take on. It feels like it’s only a matter of time until we’re pinged.’

What if I can’t work?    

Anyone ‘pinged’ by the NHS app is advised — but not legally obliged — to self-isolate for up to ten days. This is because the app is downloaded voluntarily.

That is in contrast to a telephone call from NHS Test and Trace, which could land someone with a fine of at least £1,000 if they ignore instructions to stay at home.

If you are ‘pinged’ and have to self-isolate and you can’t work from home, then you could be left counting the cost.

Employers do not even have to give you statutory sick pay of £96.35 a week for time spent self-isolating after a ‘ping’, unless you become unwell with the virus.

A ‘pinged’ employee could ask to be furloughed and receive 80 per cent of their current salary up to £2,500 a month.

And workers can ask for annual or unpaid leave to self-isolate.

Joanne Moseley, employment law specialist at Irwin Mitchell, says: ‘I doubt most employers are paying staff to self-isolate after being ‘pinged’ by the app.

‘Some undoubtedly are, but many can’t afford to pay people to sit at home. Some companies offer contractual sick pay, but only for employees who are actually ill.

‘Employers could exercise their discretion and pay staff, but they would need to be consistent.’

Alert: Users of the NHS smartphone app who were close to someone who later tests positive for coronavirus are advised to stay at home for as many as ten days

Alert: Users of the NHS smartphone app who were close to someone who later tests positive for coronavirus are advised to stay at home for as many as ten days

Is financial help available? 

Some workers may be entitled to receive a payment of £500 under the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme if they have been told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace, including by the NHS Covid 19 app.

But these payments are limited to those on a low income who are unable to work from home. To find out if you are eligible, contact your council.

Employment lawyer Matt Gingell says: ‘Employers should be flexible and use discretion, but there are limited legal requirements to pay.’ 

And Martyn James, of consumer service Resolver, says your employer could ask you to come in to work, because the self-isolation advice following a ping is not legally mandatory.

He says: ‘There are lots of rules and regulations but nothing that is pandemic-specific. Most businesses are in a massive fluster and don’t know what to do.’

Trade unions say not enough is being done to protect workers; and that better sick pay should be accessible to everyone.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), says: ‘If we want to stop Covid ripping through workplaces, people must be supported to self-isolate. 

‘With hundreds of thousands of workers being pinged every week, this is more urgent than ever.’

The self-employed can also try to claim a payment from the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, which pays up to 80 per cent of your average profits up to a maximum of £7,500 for three months.

Can I get my money back? 

Legally, consumers can get a refund if a booking is cancelled due to a ‘ping’ — but not if they themselves cannot use it because they have been ‘pinged’.

Again, this is because the NHS app only advises people to stay at home.

This week, Andrew Lloyd Webber had to close his £6 million theatre version of Cinderella because of the ‘pingdemic’.

Costly cup of coffee 

Keith Grinsted lost £750 after he was ‘pinged’ and was unable to go to work.

The 68-year-old had taken a temporary job at John Lewis in between stints of his main work as a business writer.

But after briefly stopping in a branch of Caffe Nero, he was pinged and made to self-isolate for ten days, despite testing negative for the virus.

Keith, from Suffolk, says he ‘fell between the cracks’ of available support because, as he was a temporary worker, he was not entitled to sick pay.

He says: ‘It was a big knock to me at the time. There was just no support at all. I have been very cautious, done everything right and followed all the rules but I had to pay for it.’

Keith, who runs a project called ‘Goodbye Lonely’ to help those struggling with loneliness and isolation, was pinged back in December.

The experience has made him cautious about leaving the house, even now.

He says: ‘I am very careful. I will get a takeaway coffee rather than go into a cafe because I can’t afford to lose the earnings again.’ 

James Daley, of consumer group Fairer Finance, says: ‘We will probably see many more people getting pinged and unable to attend festivals, shows and events as a result.

A lot of businesses will want to do the right thing, but financial pressures that many will be facing could result in millions of customers waiting for their cash.’

Mr James, of Resolver, says: ‘A lot of people following the advice from the app are finding they can’t get a refund. They are annoyed, confused and just want some clarity. They want to be safe but also want to be treated fairly.’

A complaint against a refund refusal would have to be ruled on in court to set a wider precedent.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) says terms and conditions on cancellations and refunds should be fair.

It is likely that terms which prevent consumers from getting money back under any circumstances are unfair. Fair terms should also take into account whether the business can resell the event or service in question without losing out. 

Consumer law specialist Gary Rycroft says: ‘I would call on the CMA to give some further guidance. People are wanting to do the right thing by themselves and society but this could be to their financial detriment, because the law isn’t strictly on their side.’

Money Mail asked more than 50 businesses if they would refund a customer who had to cancel because they had been pinged.

Dozens of organisations including theatres, cinemas and train companies confirmed that they would offer credit or the chance to reschedule. Some pledged to refund customers in cash.

But many, including several spas, a major racecourse and a large UK festival, failed to respond.

Adam French, consumer rights expert at Which?, says: ‘Businesses not already refunding customers pinged by the app must be flexible and give people their money back if they have to self-isolate.’

Must I obey the advice? 

Downloading and using the NHS Covid 19 app is entirely voluntary, so anyone ‘pinged’ is only really morally obliged to follow the advice, to help the country beat the virus. In recent months, thousands are understood to have deleted the app.

Likewise, employees are not legally required to tell their employer they have been ‘pinged’ — but their employer might well have a policy that requires them to do so.

Under-18s and those who have had both vaccinations are advised to stick to the ‘ping’ advice until at least August 16.

Even a negative Covid test is not enough to escape isolation. NHS guidelines currently instruct people to keep self-isolating for the full ten days, as they could still develop symptoms after a test.

A government spokesman says: ‘The app is doing exactly what it was designed to do — informing close contacts of someone who has tested positive for Covid 19 that they are at risk and advising them to isolate.’

‘We recognise how challenging Covid-19 has been for citizens and businesses across the country. Help is available for those in need, including welfare support, the furlough scheme and the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme, which is available to people experiencing financial hardship who cannot work from home and must self-isolate.’

b.wilkinson@dailymail.co.uk

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