The Leader of the London Borough of Merton has paid tribute to the staff and volunteers who have delivered more than 1,000 enhanced tests in just 48 hours – but will urgently write to the Government to urge the PM to scrap the means testing for support payments that many low-income families will rely on.
Mark Allison will be writing to the Government to seek immediate relaxations on strict means-testing rules around isolation payments, as one of the poorest areas in London faces intensive, enhanced testing.
Thousands of door-to-door and local COVID-19 tests are taking place in Pollard’s Hill, south London to track the South African variant of the virus after an isolated case was found in January.
The borough was the last council to be informed of the need to deliver local surge testing, being informed late on Sunday, but has successfully launched its service within 48 hours, and has so far tested well over than 1,000 people within the first 48 hours of operations.
The council is mobilising dozens of staff on a volunteer basis, provided training, and has already printed thousands of leaflets in various languages to take door-to-door as volunteer staff visit more than 4,500 households with tests.
Council Leader Mark Allison paid tribute to council staff and volunteers from the community in Pollards Hill, as well as other local agencies supporting the project – but warned that Government policy is stopping the Council from providing the support it wants to.
Cllr Allison said: “Most of all, I am incredibly proud of the job our staff and local volunteers in Pollard’s Hill have done. With virtually no notice, they have set up a mobile testing unit, trained dozens of volunteer staff, and worked together with community partners – who have been fantastic in setting up a test pick-up centre in the area.
“Between them, they have delivered well over 1,000 tests in 48 hours, so I want to thank them all, because this is entirely down to their hard work.
“But there are major unanswered questions here that must be addressed urgently with the Government.
“We know this is a tracking exercise, and there is no likely outbreak of the variant in the community. Yet we are asking people to potentially self-isolate to help the programme, with little guarantee of financial help. That isn’t good enough.
“I’m writing to the Prime Minister to urge that means-testing in the areas affected is lifted and that monies for the discretionary scheme are topped up, so we can support those on low incomes who may be asked to stay home from the essential roles that pay their rent. In the meantime, we will be doing everything possible within the rules to process payments for as many people as possible if they need our help.
“Additionally, keeping Merton safe is our top priority – but this exercise will cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds in logistics, staffing and other areas. The Government has, as usual, promised to reimburse us – but we’ve seen precious few details of this yet.
“Councils are weeks away from setting budgets and council tax levels next month, and without absolute guarantees that the full costs will be recovered, this will be another cost passed to taxpayers, which we will not accept.”