Simon Osborne looks at some of the main announcements and rule changes regarding benefit and coronavirus (COVID-19).
The outbreak of COVID-19 has had an immediate impact on demand for benefit support. The early official response regarding benefits focused on:
•statutory sick pay (SSP)
•universal credit (UC); and
•employment and support allowance (ESA).
In essence, the official view is that claimants who are unwell due to COVID-19 can, depending on their circumstances, be supported via those benefits. However, financial support for workers (both employed and self-employed) may allow workers entitled to benefits like housing benefit and working tax credit to remain on those rather than claim UC instead. The DWP have issued a reminder that claiming UC terminates entitlement to tax credits (although not mentioned in the reminder, other entitlement to legacy means-tested benefit is also terminated by a claim for UC).
Subsequent changes, with a wider focus, have included:
•A ‘worker’s support package’ aimed at keeping employees on the payroll (including benefit increases and a ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’), and a parallel scheme (the ‘Self-Employed Income Support Scheme’) aimed at the self-employed.
•Increases in universal credit and working tax credit, and protection for those who rent their home.
•Changes to claims (including regarding conditionality requirements for UC and JSA, regarding a new child for child benefit, and for means-tested benefits by prisoners on temporary release), changes to requirements regarding medical assessments and regarding temporary breaks in caring for disability benefits, and changes regarding hearings of benefit appeals.
Many of the changes are summarised, mainly in the context of UC, in the official webpage .
CPAG is pressing the government on further changes to address the impact of the benefit cap and two-child limit and to address the extra costs incurred by parents as a result of school closures through a £10 per child a week uplift on child benefit.
SSP rules can now temporarily remove the three-day waiting period before SSP can be paid. This is to apply retrospectively, from 13 March. Amended regulations now treat those with COVID-19, or those with symptoms, as incapable of work without a need for certification.
However, there was no immediate change to the restriction of SSP to employees (rather than the self-employed) or the requirement to have been earning at least at the lower earnings limit.
On 11 March, the Budget Report included the following information about benefit changes in the light of coronavirus (COVID-19).1HM Treasury, Budget 2020, HC 121, March 2020 '1.94 Eligibility for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) – The Prime Minister has already announced that the forthcoming COVID-19 Bill will temporarily allow SSP to be paid from the first day of sickness absence, rather than the fourth day, for people who have COVID-19 or have to self‑isolate, in accordance with government guidelines. The Budget sets out a further package to widen the scope of SSP and make it more accessible. The government will temporarily extend SSP to cover:
• individuals who are unable to work because they have been advised to self-isolate
• people caring for those within the same household who display COVID-19 symptoms and have been told to self-isolate
1.95 Medical Evidence for SSP – The government has already issued guidance to employers, advising them to use their discretion not to require a GP fit note for COVID-19 related absences. This Budget announces that the government and the NHS will bring forward a temporary alternative to the fit note in the coming weeks which can be used for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak.'
the government announced on 20 March 2020 that employees self-isolating because of COVID-19 symptoms would be able to provide their employers with an online ‘isolation’ note, instead of a fit note from their GP. The isolation note is available online via the NHS and NHS111 website or via the NHS app.2Department of Health and Social Care press release, ‘Online isolation notes launched – providing proof of coronavirus absence from work’, 20 March 2020, at
the Coronavirus Act 2020 and subsequent amendment regulations provide temporary removal of the SSP waiting period, retrospectively from 13 March.3Coronavirus Act 2020, section 40; The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.374
SSP new rules
From 16 March 2020, amendment regulations4The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 No.287
provided that anyone who is ‘isolating … to prevent infection or contamination with coronavirus'
where that was 'in accordance with guidance published by Public Health England, NHS National Services Scotland or Public Health Wales’
and was as result unable to work is deemed to be incapable of work for SSP purposes.
From 28 March, further amendments replaced the reference to guidance with specific reference to ‘isolating’ as meaning where the person has ‘symptoms’ of coronavirus and is staying at home for 7 days, or is living with such a person and is staying at home for 14 days. The symptoms are the recent onset of a continuous cough and/or a high temperature, and any other symptom that is specified by the Chief Medical Officer.5The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.374
A further amendment provides that from 16 April 2020 a person who has received official advice to ‘follow rigorously shielding measures'
because (under public health guidance) they are extremely vulnerable to severe illness from coronavirus due to an underlying health condition (and who is as a result unable to work) is also deemed to be incapable of work for SSP purposes. 6The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No.3) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.427
Following the introduction of some easement in lockdown measures, it has been clarified that this rule continues to apply during the person's shielding period, even if they are not strictly staying at home at all times.7The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) (No.2) Regulations, SI 2020 No.681
However, according to an official statement shielding is to be 'paused' from 1 August (as long as that is still considered safe) and at that point it is indicated that SSP on the basis of shielding will not be available.8'Guidance on shielding and protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable to COVID-19', 23 June 2020, via gov.uk
Further still, from 28 May, a person who has been notified that they have had contact with a person with COVID-19 and who is self-isolating for 14 days (from the last day of contact or the date specified in the latest notification sent to them) and who is as a result unable to work, is also treated as being incapable of work.9The Statutory Sick Pay (General) (Coronavirus Amendment) (No.4) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.539
Following the introduction of the possibility of forming household 'bubbles', rules allow this to apply in cases where the person is isolating because of coronavirus in a member of their 'linked' household (in England and Wales) or their 'extended' household (in Scotland), and they are unable to work as a result.10The Statutory Sick Pay (Coronavirus) (Suspension of Waiting Days and General Amendment) (No.2) Regulations, SI 2020 No.681
UC and ESA announcements
The following announcement in the Budget Report made plain the official view that those who are unwell but unable to get SSP (eg, the self-employed) would instead be supported by UC and/or ‘new-style’ ESA. Associated announcements about easement of ESA ‘waiting days’ and suspension of the UC minimum income floor have featured in subsequent regulations (see below).
‘1.96 Support for those ineligible for SSP – The government recognises that self-employed people and employees below the Lower Earnings Limit are not entitled to SSP… The government is committed to supporting these groups, and the Budget announces further support by making it quicker and easier to receive benefits:
•‘new style’ Employment and Support Allowance will be payable for people directly affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating according to government advice for from the first day of sickness, rather than the eighth day.
•people will be able to claim Universal Credit and access advance payments where they are directly affected by COVID-19 (or self-isolating), without the current requirement to attend a jobcentre
• for the duration of the outbreak, the requirements of the minimum income floor in Universal Credit will be temporarily relaxed for those directly affected by COVID-19 or self-isolating according to government advice for duration of the outbreak, ensuring self‑employed claimants will be compensated for losses in income’. See below for a widening of this position from 6 April.
From 6 April, the minimum income floor is suspended for ‘all’
universal credit claimants ‘for the duration’ of the COVID-19 outbreak.11COVID-19: guidance for employees, at
Legal power for this is now in regulations.12The Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371, regulation 2
In late March 2020, running of the managed migration ‘Move to UC’ pilot in Harrogate was suspended.
UC and ESA new rules
Regulations provide (for a period initially limited to eight months) that, on a discretionary basis:13The Employment and Support Allowance and Universal Credit (Coronavirus Disease) Regulations 2020 No.289; The Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371
•for ESA, waiting days may be disapplied for anyone infected with COVID-19 or who is in ‘isolation’ because of COVID-19, or who is caring for child in her/his household who is so affected;
for both ESA, anyone infected with COVID-19 or who is in ‘isolation’ because of COVID-19, or who is caring for child in her/his household who is so affected, may be treated as having limited capability for work (the intention is not to require a medical ‘fit note’); there is no direct equivalent of this rule for UC (this may be because of the relaxation of conditionality rules during the COVID-19 pandemic); it should be remembered that existing rules already allow someone 'prevented from working by law' or whose health poses a 'substantial risk' to others to be treated as incapable of work14PARA 3 SCHEDULE 8 UNIVERSAL CREDIT REGULATIONS 2013
, although it seems unlikely that DWP will apply these rules in every case of isolation;
•for UC, the minimum income floor may be suspended in any case, 'where it appears expedient as a consequence of the coronavirus disease'.
In these rules, ‘isolation’ means ‘the separation of that person from any other person in such a manner as to prevent infection or contamination with Coronavirus’
. There is no specific reference to NHS advice including online advice. Presumably, the fact that the provisions are discretionary (the Secretary of State must be ‘satisfied’ that the provision should apply) will allow the Secretary of State to apply them only in cases where isolation is when following such advice, and this is indeed the approach in the official guidance to decision makers.15Memo ADM 02/20, at
Subsequent for the public about 'new-style' ESA additionally includes the detail that a person may be treated as incapable of work where they 'have been told to stay at home for at least 12 weeks by the NHS'
because of a high risk of severe illness.16‘New-style employment and support allowance: detailed guidance’, at
The ‘worker’s support package’ announced on 20 March includes an increase in UC and WTC. Specifically, said the government, ‘The standard rate in Universal Credit and Tax Credits will be increased by £20 a week for one year from April 6th, meaning claimants will be up to £1040 better off
’17HM Treasury and others press release, ‘Chancellor announces workers’ support package’, 20 March 2020, at
Comment: note this increase is for one year only. The reference here to ‘tax credits’ is in fact a reference to the basic element of working tax credit. The Coronavirus Act 2020 confirms that the working tax credit basic element is to be £3,040 a year for the 2020/21 tax year.18Coronavirus Act 2020, section 77
The universal credit increase is via an increase of £86.67 per month to all the standard allowance rates.19The Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371, regulation 3
It would seem that there are not to be corresponding increases in other benefits, eg ESA.
Claims, assessments and appeals
Under special arrangements, ESA and UC and other benefit claimants affected by COVID-19 will not be required to attend jobcentre appointments, and ‘face-to-face’ assessments for sickness and disability benefits (including PIP and industrial injuries disablement benefit) are suspended. Work-search and jobseeking conditions in universal credit and jobseeker’s allowance were in effect suspended initially for three months from 30 March. However it is understood that the DWP have now resumed application of work-search, jobseeking and other 'claimant commitment' requirements from 1 July. All benefit claimants are encouraged to apply online where possible, or by telephone if not. Attendance at the jobcentre is by appointment only.
From 21 May 2020, where UC has been refused or entitlement lost due to excess income, rules allow the DWP to treat the claimant as reapplying for UC, ie without them actually having to reclaim. This can apply for up to five of the monthly assessment periods that would have followed had UC not been refused or lost due to the excess income. Official guidance says that the refusal or loss of UC can have occured before 21 May.20Memo ADM 10/20
On 13 March, a DWP Touchbase ‘coronavirus special’21DWP, Touchbase 140: Coronavirus Special, 13 March 2020, at
‘Special arrangements will be in place for people in receipt of benefits who cannot attend reassessments or jobcentre appointments because they are required to stay at home or are infected by coronavirus.
•Claimants who cannot attend a reassessment for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) or Universal Credit will continue to receive their payments while their assessment is rearranged.
•People who need to claim ESA or Universal Credit because of coronavirus will not be required to produce a Fit Note. [Comment: this is reflected in the new rules about being treated as having limited capability for work, in the UC and ESA regulations described above.]
•When claimants tell us in good time that they are staying at home or that they have been diagnosed with coronavirus, they will not be sanctioned. We will review their conditionality requirements in their claimant commitment, to ensure they are reasonable.
•Claimants who are staying at home as a result of coronavirus will have their mandatory work search and work availability requirements removed to account for a period of sickness.’
Subsequent press releases announced that:
‘People receiving benefits do not have to attend jobcentre appointments for at least 3 months, starting from Thursday 19 March 2020. People will continue to receive their benefits as normal, but all requirements to attend the jobcentre in person are suspended.’22DWP press release, ‘Coronavirus support for employees, benefit claimants and businesses’, 19 March 2020, at gov.uk/government/news/coronavirus-support-for-employees-benefit-claimants-and-businesses
and from 23 March, ‘only the most vulnerable’
claimants who cannot claim benefit online or by telephone will be admitted to jobcentres, on an appointment only basis.23DWP press release, ‘Claimants are asked to apply online as jobcentres limit access’, 23 March 2020, at
From 30 March, rules provide that for an initial period of 3 months there are no work-search requirements in universal credit or new-style jobseeker’s allowance, and jobseeking conditions in old-style jobseeker’s allowance are treated as satisfied. 24Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371, regulations 6-7
Regarding face-to-face assessments
for sickness and disability benefits, a DWP press release announced a suspension for three months from 17 March.25DWP press release, ‘Face-to-face health assessments for benefits suspended amid coronavirus outbreak’, 16 March 2020, at
Paper and telephone assessments are still possible. The announcement said:
‘Anyone who has a face-to-face assessment from Tuesday 17 March onwards does not need to attend and will be contacted to discuss next steps and alternative arrangements, which could include either telephone or paper-based assessments. We expect this measure will be in effect for the next 3 months but we will be regularly reviewing the position in line with Public Health advice.’
In line with this, ‘reviews and reassessments’
of all disability benefits (including UC, ESA, PIP, DLA, attendance allowance and industrial injuries benefit) are suspended for at least three months from 23 March.26DWP press release, ‘Claimants are asked to apply online as jobcentres limit access’, 23 March 2020, at
For carers allowance
, for eight months from 30 March (3 April in Scotland) temporary breaks in caring are possible where the carer or disabled person has COVID-19, or is isolating because of symptoms.27Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371, regulation 9; The Carers Allowance (Coronavirus) (Breaks in Care) (Scotland) Regulations 2020, Scottish SI No.117
For child benefit
, claimants can temporarily claim for a new born child without first registering the birth by filling in the CH2 claim form and adding a note about the child not being registered yet due to the COVID-19 outbreak or alternatively (for a second or subsequent child) telephoning 0300 200 3100.28
Prisoners on temporary release
from prison in England and Wales can (initially for eight months from 13 March 2020) get means-tested benefit support (ie as if they were not prisoners), including UC.29The Social Security (Coronavirus) (Prisoners) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.409
Regarding appeal tribunal hearings
, on 19 March HM Courts and Tribunals Service issued guidance including the following:30HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Guidance: Coronavirus (COVID-19): courts and tribunals planning and preparation’, 13 March 2020, at
‘As long as you, or the people who are coming to court with you, do not have confirmed or possible coronavirus (COVID-19) infection or do not need to self-isolate in line with NHS advice, you should continue to use courts and tribunals as usual.’
However, during the coronavirus outbreak oral hearings are generally not taking place. HM Courts and Tribunals Service are trying to decide more cases without an oral hearing, by deciding more cases on the papers or conducting hearings remotely using telephone and audio technology. In some cases they may use temporary rule changes to allow a decision to be made by a judge alone rather than as part of a two or three person panel. Emergency legislation is to provide for the expansion of the use of video and audio links to conduct hearings.31‘HM Courts and Tribunals Service, Guidance: HMCTS telephone and video hearings during coronavirus outbreak’, 18 March 2020, at ; Senior President of Tribunals, ‘Pilot Practice Direction: Contingency Arrangements in the First-tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal’; ‘Pilot Practice Direction: Panel Composition in the First-tier Tribunal and the Upper Tribunal’, via judiciary.uk
Changes to tribunal rules provide a temporary power to decide cases without an hearing at all (ie, on the papers) where deciding the case is considered urgent, it is not reasonably practicable to have a hearing (including using video or audio technology) and it is in the interests of justice to do so.32The Tribunal Procedure (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Rules 2020, SI 2020 No.416
Workers and renters
workers, the government’s ‘worker’s support package’ announced on 20 March included a new ‘Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’ to help pay worker’s wages. The official intent is that this will enable most employees who are temporarily not working due to coronavirus to be kept on the payroll (on ‘furlough’) rather than laid-off (ie and so possibly remain entitled to in-work benefit support rather than as unemployed or laid-off). Under the scheme, the government will pay up to 80% of a worker’s wages, up to a total of £2,500 per worker each month. Operation of the Scheme can be extended if necessary.33HM Treasury and others press release, ‘Chancellor announces workers’ support package’, 20 March 2020, at
However, the Scheme will close to new entrants on 30 June 2020. A revised Scheme will take its place from 01 July 2020. To be eligible for the new Scheme workers must have been on the original Scheme for at least 21 days. This means to be eligible for payments from 01 July, you must have been on furlough since before 11 June 2020. The last day you can be put onto the Scheme is therefore 10 June 2020.34www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wages-through-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme
Under the revised Scheme the government contribution to wages is to drop to 70 per cent from September, and to 60 per cent from October.
Under official guidance, wages paid through the scheme are treated as earnings under the usual earnings rules. But note that statements in the guidance that specify, for contributory JSA, the person is 'considered to be' in full-time remunerative work (unless ther 'pre-covid' hours were less than 16 per week) and so automatically not entitled to the benefit are not supported by what the law says.35ADM Memos 8/20 and 11/20; DMG Memo 13/20
From 25 April, rules ensure that an employee on furlough should not be disadvantaged regarding maternity allowance
and family-related statutory payments
(namely statutory maternity pay, statutory adoption pay, statutory parental pay, statutory shared parental pay, and statutory bereavement pay). From that date, where an employee is furloughed with wages paid under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, their eligibility for those benefits should not be less than what it would have been if not furloughed. Their earnings are assessed at the higher of either what they that are actually being paid, or what they would have been paid had they not been furloughed36The Maternity Allowance, Statutory Maternity Pay, Statutory Adoption Pay, Statutory Parental Pay, Statutory Shared Parental Pay and Statutory Parental Bereavement Pay (Normal Weekly Earnings etc) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.450
workers, on 26 March the government announced a ‘Self-Employed Income Support Scheme’ intended to provide parallel support to that provided to employed workers. Those eligible to get support from the scheme will get a taxable cash grant of 80% of their self-employed profits, up to a limit of £2,500 per month. Initially the scheme will cover the three month period to May 2020, although payments were not to commence until June. The government says that until payments start support under the usual rules of the benefit system is available.37HM Treasury press release, ‘Chancellor gives support to millions of self-employed individuals’, 26 March 2020, at
A second and final payment under the scheme is due to be made in August 2020. No immediate changes to benefit or tax credit rules were made. Grants paid through the scheme are treated as self-employed earnings under the usual earnings rules and count in the assessment period in which they are paid.38The Universal Credit (Coronavirus) (Self-employed Claimants and Reclaims) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, SI No.522
Find out what affected by COVID-19.
Regarding working tax credit, for the time being official advice is that, ‘claimants are advised not to update their working hours if they have reduced due to COVID-19, as HMRC are treating this as a temporary and exceptional change’. Subsequently, on 4 May HMRC provided the following additional detail:
'The government has confirmed that people who can't work their normal hours because of coronavirus (COVID-19) will still receive their usual tax credits payments.
Those working reduced hours due to coronavirus or those being furloughed by their employer will not have their tax credits payments affected if they are still employed or self-employed.
These customers do not need to contact HMRC about this change. We will treat customers as working their normal hours until the and close, even if they are not using either scheme.
We'll use the information we hold about the number of hours they usually work.'39'Tax credits customers will continue to receive payments even if working fewer hours due to COVID-19', HMRC, 4 May 2020, via gov.uk/government/news/tax-credits-customers-will-continue-to-receive-payments-even-if-working-fewer-hours-due-to-COVID-19
Rules putting this approach into law came into effect from 23 May 2020. Specifically, if a WTC recipient who is furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or is otherwise a 'coronavirus impacted' worker reduces their hours 'as a consequence of coronavirus' so that they no longer satisfy their full-time work requirement, they will still be treated as satisfying the requirement. Once they cease to be either a furloughed worker under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or otherwise 'impacted' by coronavirus, they are given up to 8 weeks to re-establish their normal working hours, but should be treated as working them for at least 4 weeks from the date they ceased to come under the scheme or be impacted by coronavirus.
Other changes provide that 'critical workers' (as defined in government guidance) have 3 months rather than 1 month to report changes of circumstance that must be reported for tax credit purposes, during the operation of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Also, certain coronavirus-related payments, including cash or vouchers in lieu of free school meals, are disregarded as income for tax credits.40The Tax Credits (Coronavirus, Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.534
However other changes, including regarding childcare, should continue to be reported.
Regarding those who rent their home
, the government announced that emergency legislation would ensure that ‘no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts
.’41Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, ‘Complete ban on evictions and additional protection for renters’ press release, 18 March 2020, at gov.uk/government/news/complete-ban-on-evictions-and-additional-protection-for-renters
In addition, the worker’s support package includes an announcement that there will be, ‘Nearly £1bn of additional support for renters, through increases in the generosity of housing benefit and Universal Credit. From April, Local Housing Allowance rates will pay for at least 30% of market rents in each area.’42HM Treasury and others press release, ‘Chancellor announces workers’ support package’, 20 March 2020, at
Comment: the local housing allowance change is provided for in regulations from 30 March.43Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, SI 2020 No.371, regulation 4