COVID-19 POLICY UPDATE 20 June – 26 June 2020

As part of our planning to transition back to 'business as usual', this is our last edition of the Advice NI Policy Team Coronavirus Weekly Update.
From next week, we will be restarting the production of 'THINK!', our monthly policy eNewsletter, which will have a Coronavirus section.

You can sign up to THINK and get the latest updates from our Policy Team straight to your inbox. Sign up here.

As Advice NI Head of Policy I would like to pay tribute to the dedication and commitment of the Policy Team in collating and producing the Coronavirus Weekly Updates, I would also pay tribute to all other Advice NI staff who contributed to the production and formatting for circulation via email and online.
 
If you would like to get involved in the work of the Policy Team, please contact us at: policy@adviceni.net 
 
- Kevin Higgins

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information
  • Official DfC Announcements
  • Communities Minister Question Time
  • UC and Variations in Monthly Salaries
  • Further Easements in Shielding Advice
  • Guidance for Reopening of Tourism and Hospitality Sectors
  • Childcare Recovery Plan and Education Restart Programme
  • Further Financial Support for HE Students
  • Learning from COVID-19 Experience at Care Homes
  • Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Communities 
  • Rates Discount Deadline Approaching
  • COVID-19 Report from Work and Pensions Committee
  • Coronavirus & Government Services Information from NI Direct

Health Updates
  • Return of Primary Care Ophthalmic Services
  • COVID-19 Rehabilitation Needs
  • Phased Return of Dental Services
HMRC Updates
  • Job Retention Scheme and UC – New Guidance
  • Job Retention Scheme for Benefits other than UC – New Guidance
  • Redundancy Pay in Relation to the Job Retention Scheme
  • Tax Credit Renewals
  • Amendments to Tax Credits Regulations
Other Information
  • Digital Appeal Hearings
  • Guidance on Returning to the Workplace 
  • Resources from Housing Rights
  • Advice for Blind and Partially-Sighted during Coronavirus

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information

Official DfC Announcements

Communities Minister Question Time

  • Below are some of the highlights from the Communities Minister question time this week:
    • Transition planning is underway to help regional and grassroots organisations to return to normal business and to support organisations badly impacted by the lockdown.
    • The community helpline will continue to operate and additional funding has been allocated to support that.
    • About £1.8m in additional funding has been allocated for debt-related advice.
    • The Minister gave a summary of all the amendments made to the legislation for social security entitlements during the pandemic.
    • A review is being conducted of legislation related to the private rented sector, and the role of that sector; the review will look at supply, affordability, security of tenure, tenancy management, property standards, and dispute resolution.
    • To alleviate food poverty, grant flexibility has been introduced to allow grant-funded organisations to respond to the pandemic and £3.3m of funding for food-related projects has been delivered under Neighbourhood Renewal.
    • To deal with food poverty during school holidays, DfC is looking at getting free school meal supplements to families.
    • DfC is working to ensure that the extension of welfare mitigations, including continuation of additional funding for advice services (including appeals).
    • Read the full Q&A session here, starting at 2pm http://aims.niassembly.gov.uk/officialreport/report.aspx?&eveDate=2020/06/23&docID=302713

UC and Variations in Monthly Salaries

Further Easements in Shielding Advice

  • The Department of Health announced further easements to the shielding advice given to people who are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.
  • From 6 July, people who are shielding will be able to meet up to 6 people outside the home, as long as social distancing is strictly observed; and people who are shielding and living alone will be able to form a support bubble with one other household.
  • From 31 July, people will no longer need to shield and will instead follow the same guidance and precautions given for the general public i.e. taking care when outside and maintaining social distancing.
  • Further details here https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/news/swann-announces-further-easements-shielding-advice

Guidance for Reopening of Tourism and Hospitality Sectors

  • The Department for the Economy has published new guidance, Working Safely During Covid-19 in the Visitor Economy, to enable the tourism and hospitality sectors to open as safely as possible.
  • Depending on the rate of infection, caravan parks, camping sites and self-catering tourist accommodation may re-open on 26 June.  Hotels and other tourist accommodation may re-open from 3 July along with restaurants, cafés and coffee shops.  Pubs and bars may open from July 3 for the provision of food and open their beer gardens on a table service basis.
  • The full story can be accessed here https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/news/dodds-welcomes-publication-tourism-and-hospitality-guidance

Childcare Recovery Plan and Education Restart Programme

Further Financial Support for HE Students

Learning from COVID-19 Experience at Care Homes

The Department of Health has established up the Rapid Learning Initiative Group to learn from care home experiences of Covid-19.  The group includes representatives from the independent care home sector, the Health and Social Care system and the Royal College of Nursing.  The full story is here https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/news/work-underway-learn-care-home-covid-19-experiences

Impact of COVID-19 on BAME Communities

  • A report has been published by Public Health England providing a summary of the factors that may be influencing the impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities.  The report provides requests for action which have been used to inform a number of recommendations, and these will form the basis of the next steps being taken forward by the Equalities Minister.  Although the report pertains to England, many of the same issues are relevant to NI.
  • Read the report at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-understanding-the-impact-on-bame-communities

Rates Discount Deadline Approaching

COVID-19 Report from Work and Pensions Committee

  • The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report on DWP’s response to the pandemic.
  • The report covers key benefits and identifies a number of inherent problems.  Some of the recommendations call on the government: to look at the UC system’s inability to suspend Advance payments; to raise the rate of legacy benefits in line with the increases to UC and tax credits that happened during the lockdown; to suspend the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition; to carry out and publish a full analysis of the numbers and characteristics of households who will be newly subject to the benefit cap; to investigate the decrease in the number of new PIP claims and how people have been supported during the pandemic when applying for PIP; to carry out an impact assessment on how the pandemic has effected different groups under equality categories in relation to poverty and household debt.
  • The full report can be read at this link https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/164/work-and-pensions-committee/news/147027/raise-the-rates-of-legacy-benefits-to-support-people-hit-hard-by-coronavirus-pandemic-not-just-universal-credit-say-mps/

Coronavirus & Government Services Information from NI Direct

Health Updates

Return of Primary Care Ophthalmic Services

COVID-19 Rehabilitation Needs

  • The HSC is now turning attention to the growing need for rehabilitation of those recovering from COVID-19, and they will be focusing on restoring and rebuilding their rehabilitation services; read more here https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/node/5223

Phased Return of Dental Services

HMRC and Employment Updates

Job Retention Scheme and UC – New Guidance

  • New guidance is available from DWP on how payments under the job retention scheme and SEISS are to be treated for the purposes of UC.  Key points include:

Job Retention Scheme for Benefits other than UC – New Guidance

Redundancy Pay in Relation to the Job Retention Scheme

Tax Credit Renewals

  • HMRC recently announced it would automatically renew all tax credits claims this year, apart from those identified as high risk.  This means that the majority of people will have their claim automatically renewed.
  • Due to an error, they sent around 1 million people a tax credits renewal pack (TC603R) that didn’t include some or all of the income information that was used to calculate their awards.  Here’s the statement they circulated, as a result of that error:
“We are sorry for this omission and for any inconvenience we have caused. We would like to reassure you and your customers that the tax credits payments made since the start of April are correct and based on the information we hold and would normally use at this stage in the tax credits cycle to make provisional payments and renew awards.
 
This affects the renewals process for tax credits claimants with self-employed income, income from taxable social security benefits, or other income (for instance, income from shares and dividends).
 
From 25 June 2020, we’ll be writing to those who are affected by this, setting out all the information they need.
 
This will be accompanied by other communications, including a message on GOV.UK and a text message to some customers to give them the opportunity to contact us in advance of receiving the letter.
 
To make sure we have paid the correct amount for the award period of 06/04/2019 to 05/04/2020, we need customers to review the total household income we hold for them for the 2019-2020 tax year.
 
In addition, self-employed customers who have not declared their tax return for the 2019/2020 tax year must estimate their profit or loss and report this with their renewal online or via our webchat service by 31 July 2020. Otherwise, we will finalise their award using the information we hold, and they will not be able to change it at a later date.
 
If the income details are correct or customers have already contacted us about their income and a self-employed estimate does not need to be given, they don’t need to do anything.
 
However, they will need to contact us straight away if they disagree with any of the information in the letters or they need to tell us about any changes.
 
Customers should report changes by completing their renewal:

Amendments to Tax Credits Regulations

  • The Tax Credits (Coronavirus, Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020 amend tax credit rules to allow claimants affected by the impacts of the pandemic to continue to satisfy the conditions for entitlement to WTC and to ensure that the regulations complement the job retention scheme and SEISS.
  • The intent is that furloughed workers and the self-employed should not be disadvantaged by losing entitlement to support they would “normally” get from tax credits.  Some of the changes made are:
    • To allow WTC entitlement to continue for up to 8 weeks after the job retention scheme ends in order for claimants to establish their normal hours worked.
    • To allow claimants impacted by the pandemic but not participating in the job retention scheme or SEISS to continue to satisfy the ‘hours normally worked’ and working ‘for’ or ‘in expectation of payment’ conditions of WTC.
    • To prevent workers who are furloughed or treated as being furloughed from combining their furloughed hours with hours worked in extra jobs, where prior to COVID-19 they didn’t meet the eligibility conditions for the WTC “30-hour element”.
    • To increase the current 1-month time limit to 3 months, for claimants who are critical workers, to inform HMRC of changes of circumstances that affect entitlement to tax credits, and to help claimants who’ve been unable to contact HMRC due to the pandemic.
    • You can see the amendments to the regulations here http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/534/made

Other Information

Digital Appeal Hearings

Guidance on Returning to the Workplace

  • The Advice NI policy team has compiled a range of guidance notes and information to help you prepare your offices and centres for the safe return of staff, ensure safe workplace and working-from-home practices, and support staff after the lock down.
  • The document contains a round-up of post-COVID workplace and public health guidelines from reliable sources such as the Health and Safety Executive, the PHA, and the NI Engagement Forum on COVID-19, and has links to online resources such as posters, risk assessments and checklists.
  • You can find the document on the Advice NI website at https://www.adviceni.net/sites/default/files/publications/post-covid-guidelines-for-the-advice-sector-june-2020.pdf

Resources from Housing Rights

 Advice for Blind and Partially-Sighted during Coronavirus