Coronavirus Benefit Briefing

In recent days and weeks the government has declared various changes to the benefits system to try to adapt to the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Increases to some benefits have been announced, although not to all. There are also some changes in administration of benefits, especially in the requirement to attend interviews and appointments. Expect further announcements to be made to include other benefits and to ease administration but as at 23rd March 2020 the position that relates to benefits is as follows:

General changes to benefits

  • From the 6th of April, the standard allowance of Universal Credit and the basic element of Working Tax Credit will be increased by £20 per week. This brings the equivalent weekly amount of Universal Credit in line with Statutory Sick Pay, meaning many people who claim sick pay will be able to move onto benefits without losing any income (although Universal Credit is means tested so paid at variable rates depending on the claimant’s needs and other income and savings).
  • From April, Housing Benefit and the Housing Costs element of Universal Credit will be increased for private renters to 30% of the local market rent. The maximum amount that can be claimed if you rent privately has been set at 30% of market rents since 2011 but this amount was frozen in 2015 and has not increased since then. Housing Benefit rates have fallen well below local rents in many parts of the UK. This change reverses that freeze.
  • If you make a claim to Universal Credit and need an advance payment this can be arranged over the phone without having to attend an appointment at the Jobcentre.

Jobseekers

  • Starting on 19th March, for three months, all requirements to attend Jobcentres will be suspended.
  • Jobcentres will remain open in order to support people who need to make a benefit claim but cannot do so online or over the phone
  • Anyone who is required to stay at home will be treated as having a period of sickness and will not be required to be available for or searching for work.
  • Anyone diagnosed with coronavirus or who is staying at home will not be sanctioned during this period.

Sickness and disability benefits

  • If you need to claim Employment and Support Allowance or Universal Credit and you are unable to work because of illness or disability, you will not have to provide a fit note or an isolation note from NHS 111 Online (see below).
  • Assessments for Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment have been suspended for three months from 17th March. No one will not be required to attend an appointment during this time.
  • New claims for Employment and Support Allowance are not usually paid during the first seven days of a claim. This waiting period has been removed and claims will be paid from day one.

Workers

  • Statutory Sick Pay is payable to anyone advised to stay at home by the government. Employers are encouraged to use discretion as to whether they need to get evidence of this.
  • If employers decide they do need evidence that someone has been advised to stay at home, NHS 111 Online can issue an “isolation note” that acts as sufficient evidence.
  • Statutory Sick Pay was previously only payable from the 4th day of sickness. It is now payable from the 1st day.
  • To try to prevent workers being laid off by struggling companies, the government has announced a Job Retention Scheme for workers unable to work because of the coronavirus crisis. Employers can designate employees as “furloughed” and receive 80% of the person’s wages back as a grant from the government. Payments will be based on the employees PAYE income in February.

Self-employed people

  • Self employed people will not be required to pay any income tax until January 2021.
  • The Universal Credit Minimum Income Floor has been removed for self-employed people affected by the economic impacts of coronavirus. Universal Credit usually assumes self-employed people earn at least minimum wage for any hours that are required to work. Anyone who earns less than that is treated as if they had earned this amount and their benefits reduced based on this assumed income. With many self-employed people losing much of their earnings, this measure allows them to claim Universal Credit and declare their earnings as zero.

Appeals

  • The Tribunals Service are still hearing cases but are putting in place measures to ensure maximum use of paper determinations and remote hearings.

What is to come?

  • It is currently unclear whether increases to Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits are to be extended to other benefits. At present someone on Universal Credit will receive a boost to their income but someone on Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support or Carer’s Allowance will not. This disproportionally affects disabled people, lone parents and carers.
  • Will the benefit cap continue to apply? Increases to Housing Benefit and Universal Credit will not help anyone who is affected by the benefit cap. Will the benefit cap be wholly or partially removed?
  • The government has advised that people living with someone who is vulnerable should sleep in a separate bedroom. If the under occupation charge (bedroom tax) is in force, should it be removed?
  • With the government injecting huge amounts of money into the system, should deductions due to advance payments or overpayments be made from Universal Credit or other benefits at this time?

Expect further changes to announced over the next few days and weeks as the government develops its response. Keep checking back here as we update this information with any further details that have been set out.