The response to COVID-19 has seen the government take unprecedented measures to strengthen the support available for those who need it. Changes have already been made to Statutory Sick Pay. The government have announced a job retention scheme, offering grant support for employers to retain employees who are not working. Measures have been applied to mechanisms such as Universal Credit. Already, JobCentre appointments no longer have to be attended in person, and some sanction conditions have been lifted.
Many people will need additional help at this time. Today the Government is announcing measures which will subsidise employers to keep their workers on. But many have already experienced a drastic loss in income. For gig economy or casual workers their hours have been cut, often to zero. Work will no longer provide enough to make ends meet, and the benefit system must step in.
Many of those who rely on Universal Credit to provide the support they need will be particularly vulnerable during this time. The main government benefit for people who are out of work is Universal Credit, which can be difficult to live with: waiting five weeks for Universal Credit after initial registration is a real problem, for those with little or no savings. Making the limited money Universal Credit offers stretch to cover the essentials can be a challenge. Families only receive help from Universal Credit for their first two children, so those with more will need support more than ever at this time.
We hope that the government will look at the measures available within Universal Credit to provide people with the financial and practical support they need to stay safe and provide care for those they look after at this challenging time. Improvements to the way Universal Credit provides support will prove crucial in enabling this to happen.
Whilst using existing mechanisms of support is crucial in establishing a thorough response to the challenges COVID-19 presents, there are still some people who will fall between the gaps of the support offered by Universal Credit, sick pay and wage subsidies.
Foreign nationals, refugees and asylum seekers, students and others with no recourse to public funds are just some of the groups who may be left exposed by the existing mechanisms. We need to make sure that these people are remembered in the steps taken to provide support, and that no one is left without the help they need.
The biblical call to love the stranger ‘as yourself’, to welcome the stranger with practical love and to love your neighbour has perhaps never had more resonance. At this time of challenge, this calling must extend to all those within our communities – without exception. As individuals and churches we are able to exercise this in the way we respond to those close to us, by providing support to vital services in communities. Responding to the critical call for volunteers to keep foodbanks open is just one way to do this.
But government also has a responsibility to ensure that all people are cared for during this time, not only through strengthening existing pillars of support but also through additional measures to ensure no one falls through the gaps during this crisis.