COVID-19 POLICY UPDATE 11 - 17 APRIL

Read the Coronavirus update from our policy team for 11th - 17th April which includes information on social security changes, free training, answers to adviser queries and more.
Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information
  • Official DfC announcements
  • COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants
  • Discretionary Support for full-time FE and HE Students
  • Coronavirus & Government Services information from NI Direct
Free Training – Updated for COVID-19
  • UC, ESA, Employment Law and Employment Law Updates, Advice for Self-employed
Health Updates
  • Temporary Pause in Routine Screening Programmes
  • Belfast Hotel to be Transformed into COVID-19 'Step-down Centre'
  • Guidance for People Living in Supported Accommodation
  • COVID-19 Mobile App
  • Diabetes Helpline
  • Independent Hospitals to Treat Non Covid-19 Patients
HMRC Updates
  • Tax Credits Payment Increases
  • Automatic Tax Credit Renewals
  • Child Benefit Claims
  • Furlough Scheme Cut-Off Date Extended
  • Self-employment Income Support Scheme 
  • Business Support Campaign
  • Coronavirus Scammers Target Taxpayers
Other Information
  • Coronavirus Community Fund
  • Collection and Delivery Service for Food and Medicine
  • Covid-19 Community Helpline Update 
  • MOTs
  • Community NI – Find Help Near You
Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Tax Credits and COVID-19

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information

Official DfC announcements

COVID-19 Guidance for Private Rented Sector Landlords and Tenants

  • DfC has produced a guidance document setting out general advice and information for tenants and landlords in the private rented sector.
  • It provides guidance on what to do if landlords/tenants are struggling with paying rent, advice around emergency repairs, information on minimising moves within rented accommodation and eviction proceedings.  The guidance also contains information around additional sources of finance at this time (including help with housing costs and information on how to access assistance with mortgage holidays).
  • You can download the guidance from this link https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/communities/dfc-private-rented-sector-guidance-covid19.pdf

Discretionary Support for full-time FE and HE Students

Discretionary Support guidance has been amended to make students in full-time third level education eligible for DS.  The following statement was made by DfC:

“…a person who is in full time third level education they are not normally not eligible for Discretionary Support unless in the case of a disaster.  On Monday 06 April our Minister announced that students may be eligible for Discretionary Support during the current public health crisis, which has been classified as a disaster.  As a consequence, Discretionary Support guidance has now been amended to reflect the Minister’s statement.”

Coronavirus & Government Services information from NI Direct

Free Training – Updated for COVID-19

Given the fluidity of the current situation around social security benefits, Advice NI’s training team has put together some free online courses to help you get to grips with the newly introduced regulations impacting upon UC and ESA, as well as updated Employment Law and Employment Law Updates Courses.  These are in addition to the courses listed in last week’s update: Awareness sessions for those not giving advice every day, or the public, on UC and UC for self-employed persons, fully updated for Covid 19:

Health updates

Temporary Pause in Routine Screening Programmes

A number of routine screening programmes have been stopped temporarily to allow staff to tackle COVID-19.  These include routine cervical and breast screening.  However, some cancer services will still go ahead.  More information at https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/news/temporary-pause-routine-screening-prog...

Belfast Hotel to be Transformed into COVID-19 'Step-down Centre'

Belfast hotel is being transformed into a “step-down centre” for recovering COVID-19 patients.  The Ramada by Wyndham will cater for up to 150 patients discharged from hospital who still require care.  The initiative is a partnership between the Belfast Trust and the private provider, Healthcare Ireland.

Guidance for People Living in Supported Accommodation

New guidance has been issued for managing people aged 16-21 living in supported accommodation, children’s homes and foster care during the pandemic.  Available at https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/2020-04/COVID-19%20%20GUIDANCE%20FOR%2016-21%2B%20JOINTLY%20COMMISSIONNED%20SUPPORTED%20~%20version%20....pdf 

COVID-19 Mobile App

The COVID-19 NI mobile app is a coronavirus symptom checker and provides the latest advice for people in Northern Ireland. You can download the free app - updated this week - from Google PlayStore and Apple AppStore.

Diabetes Helpline

Independent Hospitals to Treat Non Covid-19 Patients

As part of ongoing Covid-19 Surge Planning, the Health and Social Care Board has negotiated arrangements for partnership working with the independent sector hospitals.
More information at www.hscboard.hscni.net/independent-hospitals-arrangements/ 

Domestic Abuse Helplines

  • Men and women can call the Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week on 0808-802-1414..  All calls are free and confidential.
  • A webchat service is also available at www.dsahelpline.org or by email on help@dsahelpline.org
  • Further information is available at Women's Aid at www.womensaidni.org or by calling 028-9024-9041.
  • The Men's Advisory Project (MAP) can be accessed at www.mapni.co.uk or by calling 028 9024 1929.
  • Children can contact Childline on 0800-1111 or by visiting www.childline.org.uk

HMRC Updates

Tax Credits Payment Increases

Tax Credit payment increases came into effect on the 6 April.  Individual payment dates will vary but people don't have to take any action – they will receive any increased payment by 18 May.  More information at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/increase-to-working-tax-credits-what-...

Automatic Tax Credits Renewals

This year, HMRC will automatically renew all tax credits claims apart from those identified as high risk.  This means that around 3.9 million people will have their claim auto renewed; they’ll receive an auto renewal pack and will only need to contact HMRC if their details differ from the pack.  Another 150,000 people, who HMRC need more information from, will be sent a reply required renewal pack and will be expected to complete it in the normal way.  More information at https://www.gov.uk/manage-your-tax-credits 

Child Benefit Claims

Parents of new-borns will still be able to claim Child Benefit despite the COVID-19 crisis.  For further information go to https://www.gov.uk/government/news/dont-miss-out-claim-child-benefit-by-...

Furlough Scheme Cut-Off Date Extended

Self-employment Income Support Scheme 

  • HMRC have recently updated the guidance to provide clarifications to some queries they’ve received, including:
  • Detail of the treatment of losses, averaging and multiple trades.
  • Clarifications on the calculation of self-employed profits and what is meant by total income.
  • Confirmation that individuals are able to continue working, including taking on employment role.
  • Confirmation that owner-managers of Ltd companies can access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) for their salary.
  • Confirmation that individuals can access Universal Credit and the SEISS.
  • Clarification on overlaps between the SEISS and CJRS (for example, you can claim the SEISS and continue working).
  • Find information on how to claim a grant through the Scheme at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-a-grant-through-the-coronavirus-covid-...
  • Find out how HMRC works out the total income and trading profits for the Scheme here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-hmrc-works-out-total-income-and-trading-...

Business Support Campaign

HMRC have moved their Coronavirus Business Support site to the following page on GOV.UK: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus/business-support

Coronavirus Scammers Target Taxpayers

  • Fraudsters are taking advantage of the package of measures announced by the Government to support people and businesses affected by coronavirus.  Scammers text, email or phone taxpayers offering spurious financial support or tax refunds, sometimes threatening them with arrest if they don’t immediately pay fictitious tax owed.  HMRC has detected more than 40 coronavirus-related financial scams to date, most by text message.
  • HMRC’s advice is:
    • Stop: Take a moment to think before parting with your information or money.  Genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN, password or bank details, or to withdraw money or transfer it to a different account.  Don’t give out private information, reply to text messages, download attachments or click on links in texts or emails you weren’t expecting..
    • Challenge: Could it be fake?  It’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.  Go to https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/genuine-hmrc-contact-and-reco... for information on how to recognise genuine HMRC contact.  If you think you have received a HMRC-related phishing/bogus email or text message, you can check it here, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phishing-and-bogus-emails-hm-... against examples published on GOV.UK.
    • Protect: Use the latest software, apps and operating systems on your phone, tablet or laptop.. Update these regularly or set your devices to automatically update so you don’t have to worry.  Forward suspicious emails claiming to be from HMRC to phishing@hmrc.gov.uk and texts to 60599.  Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam.  Report it to Action Fraud at https://www.actionfraud.police.uk

Other Information

Coronavirus Community Fund

  • The Community Foundation NI has set up the Coronavirus Community Fund to assist people during the COVID-19 crisis.  The Fund can help isolated older people (aged over 50) and people of all ages who are at increased risk.  The Fund can also help vulnerable, isolated people and families, particularly those living in rural areas.  Grants of up to £10,000 are available.
  • Community organisations who want to deliver practical support relating to the virus can find out more on the Coronavirus Community Fund website at https://communityfoundationni.org/grants/coronavirus-community-fund/

Collection and Delivery Service for Food and Medicine

Several different mechanisms have been put in place to help get support to those who are vulnerable:
  • The Consumer Council lists a range of supports available for vulnerable people on their website https://www.consumercouncil.org.uk/coronavirus/vulnerable
  • DATS, operated by Disability Action, are offering a collection and delivery service for food and medicines for people living in Belfast, Bangor, Carrick, Holywood, Newtownabbey and Newtownards.  You don't have to be a DATS member to use this service.  More details here: https://www.disabilityaction.org/news/dats-providing-new-collection-deli...
  • South Antrim Community Transport are offering members and non-members collection and delivery of pre-paid shopping from any of the shops included in their operational area (Crumlin, Randalstown, Toome, Templepatrick, Parkgate, Doagh, Ballyclare, Ballynure, Ballycarry, Whitehead, Islandmagee, Glynn, Glenarm and Carnlough).  All services are free.  For more information, call 028-9334-2455 between 9am and 4pm, Monday to Friday.
  • Armagh Rural Transport is running a similar service in its area.  If you are over 70 or High Risk (or know someone who is) and you’re having difficulty getting grocery supplies or medication or have a medical appointment, ring their office on 028-3751-8151 or see their website: https://armaghruraltransport.com/contact/
  • Spar, Eurospar and Vivo offering home deliveries.  Over 200 Spar, Eurospar and Vivo stores are now offering home delivery to help those who are unable to get access to groceries.  A list of the stores offering this service is available at this link: https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/ulsterbusiness/news/more-tha...

Covid-19 Community Helpline Update 

  • Advice NI has implemented a recovery plan and this week has seen a significant improvement in the performance of the Helpline. There has also been a settling in demand in terms of the number of calls.
  • There is now clearer messaging in terms of the purpose of the Helpline and all the services that are being put in place. The Helpline does not validate whether a caller has a shielding letter or whether they are otherwise vulnerable and in food need, the call handlers will simply record what the caller has reported, that they are shielding / non-shielding, and that they are in need of support, for example food delivery or a food parcel, with no other means of accessing it. 
  • There is a misleading perception that someone shielding or who is otherwise vulnerable and who has been identified by or self-referred to a Trust, Council or local organisation, has to be 'registered' with the Helpline in order to access food support. This is NOT the case and can result in frustration and delays for people as they are merely referred back to the Council for food support.
  • More generally the purpose of the Covid-19 services being put in place is to ensure that people, who otherwise would be left without help, have access to support. So it is about targeting the most vulnerable. So for some it may be about help with delivery of medication. For others it is about accessing delivery slots for shopping, and where this cannot be done then referrals can be put in place to enable delivery of shopping. And for some it will be about accessing support in terms of food parcels via the Council Hubs. 

MOTs

  • The DVA has suspended all testing until 22 June 2020.  These are necessary precautionary measures to protect staff and customers and adhere to public health authority guidelines on social distancing.  All of these vehicles will be issued with a three-month Temporary Exemption Certificate (TEC).  Further information on Coronavirus (Covid 19) and motoring page.
  • The DVA has suspended the use of vehicle lifts in its MOT test centres, following the identification of faults.  Temporary Exemption Certificates (TECs) will be issued to customers who have expired MOTs as a result of cancelled test appointments.  Appointments for taxis and four-year-old cars are being prioritised and customers will be contacted directly.
  • Due to the impact of Covid-19, the DVA has limited capacity to answer customer queries and there is currently no counter or phone service available.  Should you need to get in touch with the DVA on an urgent matter, use their email dva.customerservices@infrastructure-ni.gov.uk

Community NI – Find Help Near You​

Use the search to find organisations that are able to offer non-medical help directly to people https://www.communityni.org/ 

    Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Tax Credits and COVID-19

    This section of the update provides you with answers to some of the Tax Credit questions that we’ve been getting from advisers (answers provided thanks to Robbie at Advice NI):

    1. ​A lot of CTC/WTC claimants don't want to move to UC so can/will CTC/WTC accept a change of circumstances (i.e. drop in income) for April 20-April 21 as quickly as possible, i.e. the usual 10-day turn around period?  Clients are being told to ring back in 8 weeks and are not even being told what will happen when they ring back.

    Tax Credits will receive the revised income figures from April onwards.  The Tax Credit office will only change the income being used if there is going to be a drop of more than £2,500 in the year.  The client has to look at the 2019/20 income figure and then try to estimate what they think their income is going to be for 2020/21, taking into account the loss of earnings for COVID-19.  If the loss is more than £2,500 then the lower income figure will be used plus £2,500 and you therefore might see an increase in the weekly/monthly award.  There’s a good table in the link below showing the different variables; this also explains about the income changes below the table and the reporting of the decrease:

    https://www.litrg.org.uk/tax-guides/coronavirus-guidance/coronavirus-emp...

    2. Are the letters that people are getting in relation to being vulnerable and advising about self-isolation, an instruction or guideline?  I had a client who states he cannot afford to stay off and he is a delivery driver for a lorry that delivers food and medical supplies so is a key worker.  I rang the LRA for advice as I just wanted to know for own knowledge and the adviser was off the opinion that he needs to tell his employer and that he could request to be furloughed but it may not be granted, and failing this he will get SSP from the first day.  I rang the client back and relayed this to him and he stated that he does not want to lose money and this letter is not an instruction.  I advised that he needs to think of his health and advised on UC but he said he did not want to go down that route.  So is it just a guideline or should people take it as an instruction?

    Refer to the guidance issued on gov.uk: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-for-wage-costs-through-the-coronavirus...

    The information provided in the letter is guidance and not an instruction or a legal obligation on the part of the employee or employer.  The employee has to make their own decision on the matter but they should show the employer the guidance issued by the government and request to be furloughed based on this.

    3. If someone is advised by their GP to self-isolate for 12 weeks and their employer agrees to pay SSP would they be entitled to the 80% of pay if their employer, then closes business for everyone?  This client went off on Tuesday 24th March to begin 12 weeks’ isolation (vulnerable and advised to do so by GP), her employer is paying SSP but then everyone was advised on Friday 27th March the business will be closing for approx. 3 weeks and the will get their 80% pay.  Client wants to know will she continue to get SSP or should she get the 80%?

    SSP has to be paid for the 12-week period and then the employee should be placed on the furlough scheme once the self-isolation has run its course.  The guidance below confirms this. However, an employee could potentially stop SSP before the 12-week period is up and just apply for the scheme, if the employee requests this from the employer.  The application process for the scheme is set to be introduced on 20/4/20.

    4. Can a furloughed worker claim CBJSA while waiting for the first 80% of wages to be paid, if so what are the implications of this when the 80% is received?  If there is information on this can you send me the link for a reference.

    5. How can somebody be treated both as working at least 16 hours a week (for WTC) and treated as not working 16 hours a week (for JSA) at the same time?

    6. I wondered if there was any clarity around those in receipt of working tax credit being as treated as working the required hours, even if their hours drop below this due to Covid 19, being able to claim new style JSA and keep WTC in place?


    Questions 4, 5 and 6 here are pretty similar and the same answer applies: new-style JSA would only be claimed in the scenario where the client has been made redundant.  Being furloughed only changes the terms and conditions of the employment contract and not the employment status.  The Tax Credit office are viewing the reduction in hours/pay as an exceptional circumstance and still treat you as being in work for 8 weeks (likely to be longer if the lockdown extended).  This is almost like the same rule in place for continuing to get WTC during sick leave/maternity leave.

    The furloughed staff waiting to be paid the 80%, if not on legacy benefits, should be claiming UC if there is eligibility/entitlement as there are no conditions in place to find work etc.

    For question 3, the client would be still classed as working and therefore now able to claim new-style JSA; it wouldn’t be the intention for both benefits to be claimed at the same time.