COVID-19 Practicalities and Politics


If the UK government had set out to demonstrate that capitalism can’t cope with a pandemic, they couldn’t have made things much clearer. Their initial reluctance to do anything that would interrupt the economy will be blamed for thousands of extra deaths; and, even now that they have realised the need to take action and spend large sums of money, the focus of their expenditure has been on preserving the economic system. Otherwise, they apparently consider it enough that hundreds of thousands of households will be kept just above subsistence level, though even this has only been achieved through public pressure

The government seems determined to do nothing that might reverse social inequality, but there are questions being asked about what will happen when the immediate threat is over: should we return to the old ways? As a society, we have seen that capitalism couldn’t provide a solution and that we needed massive public intervention. We have discovered that, when they are pushed, governments can find money. We have learnt who are the really vital people in keeping our society running – and that, apart from doctors, they are generally on the lowest wages. We have found that huge numbers of people are ready and willing to self-organise and play an active part in supporting others in their community. And many people are being jolted into reflecting on what really matters in life.

We should be able to build on all this to create a very different society, but that won’t happen automatically, especially with progressive organisations in their current state of disarray. We need to resist those well-meaning voices who tell us to put politics aside while we focus on immediate needs. In the SUWN we have always argued that practical mutual support must go hand in hand with political activism to change the system that is creating the problems in the first place.

Of course, there were viruses before capitalism – though the relentless exploitation of the natural world makes their emergence more likely. But the prioritisation of commerce, and the running down of public health services has allowed the disease to spread more virulently and destructively, both in its immediate impact, and in the effect it could have in strengthening inequalities and snuffing out those things not backed by big money.

And if we don’t make the case for a better world, then the momentum could move, instead, to those who have responded to the failures of economic liberalism by promoting a new authoritarianism. Already, COVID-19 has been used as an excuse for bringing in draconian legislation and giving new powers to governments. These could be used for much more than containing the spread of a virus.

We will continue to play our part in raising the bigger political questions – but we also need to make sure that as many of us as possible are fit and able to fight for that better world. So here is our guide to the current situation. If you can’t find the answer to your questions here, please get in touch and we will do our best to find out for you – though many of the new rules have yet to be fleshed out.

You can contact us on or through Facebook, or ring 07803 052239 or 0131 467 4488.

If you’re still in work

Collective action is more important than ever, so, if you’re not already in a trade union, please join one! This is not just an insurance against individual ill-treatment. It also enables more effective action if employers are not providing necessary protection or are exploiting the situation for their own gain.

If, because of Covid-19, your employer no longer has work for you to do

The UK government is supremely concerned about the survival of the capitalist economy and the UK’s ability to restart the system once the pandemic is over. This has dictated their funding priorities, including the establishment of a Job Retention Scheme. If your employer is short of work due to COVID-19, the government will fund them to keep you on the books, and not working, but receiving 80% of your wages (up to a £2,500 a month). This arrangement has to be agreed between employee and employer. It will also take a bit of time to get up and running Employers won’t get the money back until the end of April, which is making some reluctant to sign up to the scheme, or encouraging them to try and pass on the delay to their employees (Google ‘Wetherspoons’). If your employer is trying to make people redundant because of lack of work, then they might be persuaded to agree to this scheme instead. Trade unions can help make the case for this. You can only be part of this scheme if you are doing no work for your employer. There is no scope for part time working. Your employer can choose to make your wages up to the full amount themselves, but they don’t have to. If your employer doesn’t agree to keeping you on under this scheme, you will be left to the mercies of Universal Credit or Jobseekers Allowance.

If you’re self-employed and can no longer work

The government has finally been shamed into including the self employed in their 80% earnings compensation scheme – but with no payments expected until June, which demonstrates how little they understand or empathise with the real lives of most of the people whose future depends on them. There is also nothing here for those who have only recently become self-employed. To qualify, earnings from self-employment must make up more than half of your taxable income for the year 2018-19. This and the previous two tax years (if you were self-employed then too) will be used to calculate what you will be paid. If you haven’t put in a tax return for 2018-19 you can still do so. The details – such as they are – are set out here. Other than checking you’ve put in that tax return, there’s nothing more that you can do to claim this now, except wait for future emails from HMRC. It’s, basically, don’t ring us, we’ll ring you. Meanwhile, though, you could apply for Universal Credit to tide you over, provided you are otherwise eligible. As always, you may not want to apply for Universal Credit if you are getting other benefits under the old rules (such as housing benefit or tax credits) as once you are in the Universal Credit system there is no going back.

If you lose your job

If you lose your job, then you may have to rely on out-of-work benefits. Already, half a million people have been trying to apply, and the system can’t cope.  Now that a whole new cohort of vocal people will be forced to rely on Universal Credit, the Government has had to acknowledge what benefit claimants and campaigners have been telling them for a long time: it is not enough to survive on. To try and pre-empt the inevitable outcry, Universal Credit will be raised by £20 a week from 6 April (on top of the planned small increase) which will make it equivalent to Statutory Sick Pay. This increase will also be applied to Working Tax Credits (for those still on these). Couples have to share the increase between them, and there appears to be nothing extra for those claiming JSA or ESA.

Despite many demands for change, there is still a five week wait between signing onto Universal Credit (provided you can actually get through the overburdened system) and getting your first benefit payment. You are expected to get an advance loan which will be subtracted from your future payments.

The timing of your application can make a big difference to your first Universal Credit payment. You need to put in your claim almost as soon as you are eligible, as you can only backdate a month, however it’s usually best to wait until after you have received any final payment from your last job in order for that payment not to be included in the first month’s benefit calculation. This doesn’t apply to redundancy pay, which is counted as capital. (If you are returning to Universal Credit after less than six months, you can sometimes lose money if you delay signing back on for more than a week after you end work.)

If you have paid enough National Insurance in the relevant recent period (it’s complicated) you can apply for ‘New Style’ Job Seekers’ Allowance (JSA) instead of Universal Credit. You should then get your first payment within two weeks, and some of the other rules are better too. However, you may have to apply for Universal Credit on top of this if you need further help, such as housing benefit – and perhaps for that extra £20?

You are not currently expected to go to the Jobcentre. Everything is done online or via an incredibly busy phone line .

ALL WORK SEARCH REQUIREMENTS HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED FOR AT LEAST 3 MONTHS. You should still inform the DWP via your online journal if you need to self-isolate, but, if you do have Covid-19 or have to self-isolate or care for others who are self-isolating, this won’t be counted against your allowed periods of sickness.

If you are self-employed and on Universal Credit

As a temporary concession, the DWP has dropped the rule that prevented you from getting extra benefit payments if your income dropped below a set minimum (the minimum income floor).

If you are having trouble paying your housing costs

One of the first things the government did was bring in payment breaks for people with mortgages. Renters had to wait until the pressure for change was impossible to ignore. Local Housing Allowance (the benefit to help pay private-sector rents) will be increased in April, but there are no rent breaks, just a promise to bring in a stay on evictions, which has yet to be legislated. Housing Associations have already announced that they will not evict. The Tribunal is already closed for new eviction hearings, but it is unclear what will happen if an eviction order has already been granted. Check Shelter Scotland for up-to-date information.

The stay on evictions is a start, but it only defers problems till later. If you are worried for yourself or your friends and neighbours, here is the link to Living Rent, the tenants’ union. You can also find them on Facebook.

If your employer is putting your health at risk

The government has been dangerously vague and there are no previous cases to refer to, but employers should follow government advice on social distancing and provide facilities for hand cleaning.  Acas comments ‘An employer should listen to any concerns staff may have and should take steps to protect everyone.’ Again, you may need help from a trade union to try and get your employer to ‘listen’ and to act!

If you are considered to be at very high risk of severe illness if you catch coronavirus

If you are classified as at very high risk, you will be advised to isolate at home for twelve weeks. You should be contacted by the NHS (see here).

If you have to stop work because you have Covid-19, or have to self-isolate, or to care for others in the household who are self-isolating

If you are an employee earning an average of £118 a week or more, you can apply for Statutory Sick Pay (£94.25 a week), which is now (temporarily) available from day one. Instead of a doctor’s line, you need an ‘Isolation Note’, which you can get online from the NHS website (it’s the same link for Scotland). The Government Guidance is here.

If you’re self employed, you will need to apply for Universal Credit or, if you have paid enough National Insurance in the relevant recent period, ‘New Style’ Employment and Support Allowance.

If you are expecting a health assessment for PIP, ESA or UC

Face to face assessments have been suspended. Decisions will be based on the paperwork that they have or on a telephone interview. You will be contacted about this. If you are interviewed by phone, we would still recommend that you have someone with you as a witness to the discussion and for moral support. (You could put your phone on loudspeaker.)

If your PIP or DLA is about to run out it will be automatically extended

(See here.)

If you are waiting for an Appeal Tribunal

Tribunals are being postponed or being done by telephone

If you’re angry with the situation we find ourselves in

Don’t forget the politics: educate agitate organise!


From a trickle to a stream

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Bob emerged from a routine appointment in the Jobcentre looking shaken. He explained that had been stopped by security personnel when entering the office, who had “closed in [on him] like automatic doors from each side”. He obviously felt intimidated and had asked his advisor what they were doing. He was told that security were there for “staff protection”. He was also told they were able to “frisk” people. If this is illustrative of a wider policy, it is a worrying development.

Of course, we have been here before. Back in 2014-15, we had many confrontations with the security staff in Dundee Jobcentre, who were very fond of laying their hands on SUWN volunteers as well as unsuspecting claimants, who often found themselves in a half Nelson when all they’d done was perhaps question an advisor’s ruling or contemptuous attitude towards them. We will keep an eye on this situation, but, in the meantime, if you’ve had experience of over-bearing or confrontational security guards at Dundee (or any other) Jobcentre we’d like to hear from you.

After two to three months of fairly quiet stalls, when we were dealing with perhaps two to three cases, this week proved to be very different, with around ten folk requiring assistance or help of some kind. Doreen emerged from the Jobcentre looking perplexed. She had been sent a letter from the DWP. Until recently she had been claiming Carers Allowance (CA), as she had been raising her two disabled children. But she was now no longer responsible for one of the children, and the DWP had sent her a letter claiming this represented a change of circumstances, meaning she would now have to apply for Universal Credit (UC). We offered to accompany Doreen into her appointment, but she felt confident enough to deal with the issue herself, and when she re-appeared shortly afterwards, her beaming smile indicated that she had resolved the problem and would continue to be paid CA. Doreen was only too well aware of the problems with UC, and was determined to avoid being transferred into its loving embrace for as long as possible.

Fergus had been detained overnight in police custody. He had consequently missed a Jobcentre appointment. Obviously, he had had no way of accessing his online journal, or any other way to contact the Jobcentre. He feared a sanction, but emerged looking very relieved. The Police had been helpful and had confirmed his story to the Jobcentre. He remembered the SUWN from the past, and thanked us for our ongoing work.

Adam had also just been released from a short jail sentence, during which time his medical ‘fit note’ had run out. He had been unable to renew it, and was now worried about the ‘gap’ and whether his GP was going to be difficult about continuing the fit note from the end date of the old one. He took a leaflet and said he would be in touch if he had any further difficulties.

Emma had come to the Jobcentre to ask about the process of applying for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) on behalf of a friend. We explained that the initial application for PIP was done over the phone, and provided her with the number. We also urged her to get help with the application process from a welfare rights organisation. It is always worth applying for PIP if you think you might be eligible, but we always advise folk to get help with the paper form, preferably from a welfare rights advisor.

Ian told us that he is getting £80 taken off his payments every fortnight due to paying off a loan. This leaves him living on only £50 a week. We advised him to apply to the Scottish Welfare Fund to help with immediate difficulties, and to register with Welfare Rights, who should be able to negotiate a less crippling repayment rate.

Gill, who has COPD and who works part time in a discount store, had been on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for some years, but now gets Universal Credit, and the Jobcentre is pressurising her into applying for full time work. This is placing her under severe stress and exacerbating her condition. The matter was not helped by her advisor, who she felt had been openly contemptuous of her and who had threatened her with a sanction if she didn’t comply with demands to up her working hours, despite Gill’s repeated explanation of her medical condition. Gill had recently changed to a new advisor, which had resulted in a slight improvement in tone, but she said she might want someone to go in with her next time. We have advised her to apply for the Limited Capacity for Work element of Universal Credit.

Hamish is a part-time taxi driver. His UC payments are not coming through, and his hours are up and down. The SUWN has highlighted the problems of UC for those on uneven hours, or who are self-employed. We advised him to seek a full benefit check from welfare rights, which would clarify whether he has been short changed, or whether this is another case that demonstrates just how unfit for purpose this ridiculous excuse for a welfare system actually is – particularly when it comes to protecting the low paid.

Jack has had previous dealings with the SUWN. He is doing everything he can to look for work. He told us that the Jobcentre, are sending him on a two-week employability course. He was not exactly sure of the details of it, but suspected that it will be tutorials on CV Writing. Jack already has an excellent CV, and has several different versions tailored to different sectors. He will be taking copies of his various CVs to the course and asking what they could possibly tell him that he isn’t already doing. He has also promised to keep the SUWN informed as to what the course entails. We warned him to be careful about any paperwork he signs.

Duncan, Garry, Jock, Jonathan, Norma and Tony were at this week’s stall.