Ahead of the government publishing emergency legislation to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Citizens Advice is calling for measures to ensure that vulnerable people and low-income families are not pushed into financial hardship as a result of the outbreak.
These include immediate changes to Universal Credit and the extension of the Cold Weather Payment to households that are self-isolating.
Those at particular risk include seven million people in the UK without savings to fall back on; five million self-employed people; and those in 1.5 million low-income jobs that don’t qualify for statutory sick pay (SSP).
The charity warns many will also face higher energy bills and other essential costs as a consequence of having to self-isolate or stay at home to look after dependents.
Without action from the government, Citizens Advice fears the public health response to coronavirus could be undermined by people who feel they just cannot afford to self-isolate.
Citizens Advice has set out temporary emergency measures that could be taken to protect the most vulnerable during the outbreak, including:
Sick pay: Legislating to provide Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) at 80% of their wage for people earning less than the Lower Earnings Limit. Temporarily increasing SSP and the level of benefits to support people facing sustained drops in income.
Universal Credit: Suspending the Minimum Income Floor for all self-employed people. Making advance payments a grant for those making new claims and advised to self-isolate. Making use of repayment pauses for benefit debt and third party deductions.
Household bills: Extending the existing Cold Weather Payment to provide support for self-isolating households in receipt of Universal Credit or legacy benefits.
Housing: Legislating to suspend section 21 to temporarily stop no-fault evictions for private renters. Amending the grounds under which section 8 can be used to ensure people aren’t being evicted as a consequence of being in arrears due to coronavirus.
Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
The government has made it clear that it will do everything in its power to support the public health response to this virus, but financial protections are crucial to ensure people can follow guidance to self-isolate.
Millions of families across the country are already balanced on a financial cliff edge. Their biggest worry right now is that the knock-on effects of the coronavirus could send them tumbling over, with missed bills and rent arrears.
No one should fear being pushed into poverty if they fall ill or need to self-isolate. Yet without further emergency measures to protect society’s most vulnerable, this will be the reality for millions of people.