Last week in Whitehall

This time three weeks ago we hadn’t heard of the word coronavirus, now our nation is on lockdown and the world looks very different. With so much information coming out every single day we wanted to do a roundup of what’s happened in Whitehall last week.

The country on lockdown

At the start of this week, Boris Johnson made a historic announcement, instructing everyone to stay at home to save lives. The announcement came after mounting pressure for stricter measures in the UK to stop the spread of Covid-19. This week the British public have been adjusting to lockdown life. With a ban on leaving homes except for essential work, trips to buy food and medicine, one bout of exercise per day, to care for a vulnerable person or for medical reasons.

Internal workings

On Tuesday, at the DWP Committee, Thérèse Coffey, The Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions,  confirmed that 477,000 people have applied for Universal Credit in the last 9 days. Coffey confirmed the 5-week wait to receive Universal Credit can not be changed, as they are having to rule out significant changes to the technology. 

The Science and Technology Committee also met on Tuesday, joined by Professor Neil Ferguson. Ferguson stated if current measures implemented by the government work as we expect them to, we will see ICU demand peak in 2.5 to 3 weeks, then decline thereafter.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and furloughed workers

Another word we didn’t know 4 weeks ago is furloughed. A furloughed worker is those whose employers cannot cover staff costs due to coronavirus where they have been asked to stop working but have not been made redundant.

Last week, the government announced that it will pay 80% of salary for staff who are kept on by their employer, covering wages up to £2,500 a month. Under the coronavirus job retention scheme, all UK employers with a PAYE scheme will be able to access support to continue paying part of their employee’s salary for those that would otherwise have been laid off during the crisis. 

On Thursday we received another update on furloughed workers and what employers need to access the grant.

  • Employers must have had in place a PAYE scheme on or before February 28th, and must have a UK bank account
  • An employee must be furloughed for an employer to access the grant
  • An employee who is furloughed must be furloughed for at least three weeks with a maximum of three months (guidance suggests extension is possible based on how the situation unravels) to qualify for the grant. This suggests within a single pay-cycle an individual can go from furloughed to un-furloughed. 
  • Not all employees need to be furloughed and employees can be furloughed on a case by case basis. This is dependent on the employer’s needs. It is a question of how you wish to manage your workforce, a situation could arise where 80% of staff are furloughed and the final 20% are conducting 100% of the work, depending on the wants of the employer you are able to furlough as is your requirements. 
  • Finally, an employer can re-furlough an employee after they have returned to work from a previous period of furlough. This feeds into the point above, with the ability to change the designation of an employee within a month and multiple times, employers are given the freedom to manage their workforce to fit their needs. 

It is worth noting that CJRD will be considered on an employment by employment basis. If someone has a second job or takes on a new role whilst furloughed, there is no impact on the CJRS grant the employer receives for the employee. 

We’ve built a furloughed staff payment support solution which provides instant access to up to 50% of furloughed income. You can find out more here.

Home Testing 

On Thursday, Public Health England confirmed the UK will be making 15-minute at-home test kits which will be delivered by Amazon. When exactly the tests will be available is unknown and even though the government has bought 3.5 million test kits, the chief medical officer Chris Witty said they need to evaluate tests to see if they are accurate enough for public testing before they are made available.

Self-employed workers 

Thursday evening brought the long-awaited relief package for the self-employed was announced in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest mini-budget. Sunak announced a generous package for those who earn the majority of their income from self-employment and for those with average profits less than £50,000 over the last three years. These people will be able to apply for a taxable grant equal to 80% of their average profits reported across the last three years, capped at £2,500 a month. To minimise fraud, only those who are already in self-employment with a tax return for 2019 will be able to apply. If you’re eligible, HMRC will contact you directly. To make sure no one misses out, Sunak is giving people who missed the filing deadline in January four weeks from today to submit their tax return. 

Although the Chancellor claimed HMRC are working on the package as a matter of urgency, the expectation is that access to the scheme won’t be possible until the beginning of June. To that, Sunak stated self-employed people can access the business interruption loans, and that self-assessment income tax payments that were due in July can be deferred to the end of January next year. To bridge the 2-month wait for the package, the Chancellor reminded people that they’ve changed the welfare system, giving self-employed people access to Universal Credit in full. 

Finally, on Friday it was confirmed that the prime minister, Matt Hancock and Chris Witty had all shown symptoms of Covid-19 so were now self-isolating at home. For the evenings briefing Gove stood in for the PM and announced that Johnson has brought together businesses, research institutes and universities in a new alliance to increase testing capacity for front=line workers. He says the new “antigen” test will be trialled on the frontline with hundreds starting over the weekend and then dramatically scaling up next week.

Weekend Updates

On Friday, it was announced through a video on his Twitter feed that the Prime Minister tested positive for Covid-19. Shortly after, it was also released that Matt Hancock and England’s chief medical officer had also tested positive. With all the aforementioned self-isolating at home, Friday evenings Downing Street press conference was run by Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove.
Gove announced a new alliance of business, research institutes, and universities to test front-line workers. This will be in the form of antigen testing, which confirms whether frontline workers have already had the disease and can go back to work.

On Saturday, the Business Secretary Alok Sharma spoke in the Downing Street press conference. Sharma vowed that red tape on businesses will be slashed with new legislation coming soon. He said measures will be introduced to help businesses emerge from the other side of Covid-19.

On Sunday evening, Secretary for Housing Robert Jenrick announced that the country is now on an emergency footing with strategic control centres set up to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Jenrick reiterated that the virus does not discriminate, “it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are or how old you are. we each have a part to play by staying at home, protecting the NHS and helping to save lives”.

Jenny Harris, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said on Sunday that we would be foolish to think that the measures introduced in the last fortnight would already be reflected in case data. Some proof will emerge over the next two or three weeks whether the measures taken so far are helping. With extended lockdown measures likely, employers will have to find new ways to look after the financial health of staff as resilience of everybody will be tested in this challenging time.

Dr Harris hoped that after six months we would be at a point where “we can get back to normal.” Once more, Harris reiterated that if we are successful we will have squashed the top of the curve, but we must not return to our normal way of living. The bottom line is, keep practising social distancing. 

Tune in next week to find out what happens in Whitehall.