When Isolating at Home is as Bad for Your Health as Going Out

Self-isolation for a period of time – and we don’t know how long – is necessary to get Covid-19 under control. For many of us, it’s also boring, uncomfortable, and a reminder of all the reasons we love (and are irritated by!) our families.  But for some of the people Z2K works with, living on Social Security benefits and renting from private landlords, self-isolation means something different.

Rose Bernstein, Tenants Voice and Campaigns Officer

If you rely on Local Housing Allowance to pay for your flat, and particularly if you are hit by the benefit cap, then you are restricted to flats that landlords who accept benefits offer. The quality of these can be terrible – but the worst part is often how small they are.

A landlord with a decent sized house in London will split every room into a ‘studio’ flat. Each flat is just big enough for a bed, a fridge and maybe a shelf or two. A hob is added to the wall near the bed, and a toilet is built in at the side. For anyone renting – and isolating in – a flat like this, it means four walls enclosing a single, small bedroom, is now their entire world. “Ahmed”, an older man living alone, describes his flat:

“It’s in the basement and it’s so small. There’s no natural light, only a small window in the door. I can’t cook – the hob is by the bed and if I do even one egg the smell fills the room for 5 or 6 hours. You can sit on the toilet and shower and wash your hands at the same time.”

The clients I work with have all been homeless, and they were glad to find somewhere to live.  But the flats they can afford are so tiny they shouldn’t be called a home.  My clients spend most of their time outdoors – in the park, looking for a job, or just sitting alone.

With the self-isolation needed to deal with coronavirus, they can’t do that anymore. For “Kenny”, who has a background of serious trauma, it’s like being locked up.

“I tried to go to the park but police kicked me out. I’m staying home now, but the place is too small to stack up food so I have to go out to buy it. I’m glad I have somewhere to live, but if something happens nobody will come.”

For some being trapped at home is too much. “Helen”, a 60 year old woman with multiple health problems, finds herself choosing between a flat where the damp and the infestation worsen her health, and an outside world riddled with a virus she would be especially vulnerable to.

“It’s hard. I can’t stay in there, I’ll go crazy. I’m just sitting in one room listening to the rats and the mice, sitting in their urine.”

The arrival of the deadly virus sheds a stark light on the living situation people dependent on benefits are forced into: when the place you live is so small, so unsafe, and so unpleasant, that you would rather face the danger outside than stay home, something has gone badly wrong. As “Samuel” says:

“It’s times like this you realise the place you’re in is completely inadequate. It’s a tiny room, what am I supposed to do? I can’t even sit in this room for half the day and another room the other half – there isn’t another room. It’s crazy how they expect people to live their life in one room.”

The solution isn’t complicated. The Covid-19 crisis has seen the Government seemingly accept that when people are hit by an unforeseen incident that leaves them unable to work or pay rent, they need the kind of help that provides enough support to live on and pay rent: in raising the rate of LHA (housing benefit) to the 30th percentile of market rents and raising the Standard Allowance for Universal Credit (though not JSA or ESA) by £20 a week, they have begun to provide that solution.

But many of our clients get nothing from the rise in LHA because they are already hit by the ‘benefit cap’ – a limit on how much benefit one individual or household can get.

So more is needed, both for the current crisis and in the long-term. Two simple changes would make a huge difference:

  • raising the rate of LHA to cover average (median) rent costs, and keep this higher rate beyond the immediate crisis
  • scrapping the benefit cap so that tenants can actually benefit from the LHA rise.

Fundamental changes are needed to mend Britain’s broken housing system. But these two extra changes would be a start, meaning that all private tenants could afford to live somewhere safe and secure, a genuine home in a crisis like this and in the future too.


Z2K has put together 12 key actions the Government needs to take to offer support not just to people left jobless by Covid-19, but for those made homeless or unable to work by other crises, whose lives are also hugely affected by the virus. Join our campaign.

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