Mark Hodgkinson: Government reforms must support disabled employees in crisis

Mark Hodgkinson

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and prime minister Boris Johnson have unveiled a £350 billion emergency measures bill to support those in dire financial straits due to the Coronavirus crisis. Included in the bill are measures to pay statutory sick pay from day one, rather than day four, for people affected by the virus.

As well as this, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) announced that face-to-face interviews for employment and support allowances, personal independence payments and universal credit would be suspended for at least three months, instead being conducted over the phone or on paper.

At Scope, we back the changes to the welfare system the government has made, but we think government now needs to do everything it can to go further and support disabled people during this this unprecedented time.

Approximately a quarter of Scope’s helpline calls are solely about Coronavirus at the moment, with almost all calls mentioning it in some capacity.

With many disabled people already facing extra costs averaging £583 a month, they are likely to be hit hard by the crisis. Potential shock drops in income will mean many will struggle to have enough money to get by and protect themselves and their health.

The government must be clear in reassuring disabled people that they will have a stable income, whether through statutory sick or welfare payments.

Scope and mental health charity Mind were already calling for urgent reform of the sick pay system, when the Coronavirus crisis brought into sharp focus just how vital a flexible and fair system is for all in need of financial support when unwell.

Paid currently at just £94.25 a week, disabled people will be unable to manage financially if self-isolating, especially if they face skyrocketing costs for utilities and supplies. There is an urgent need to look at the rate and the role the government can play in supporting disabled people to have financial security.

Rapid introduction of measures on sick pay and welfare were, of course, entirely necessary, but it is important they are clearly communicated to disabled people. We know that many disabled people have specific concerns about the virus, which need to be urgently and directly addressed.

Supporting people in crisis through emergency changes to sick pay was rightly a top priority. Longer-term, the changes outlined by the government should become permanent and apply to all those needing to take time off work because of illness.

At this crucial moment, the UK government must do whatever it takes to make sure disabled people are not financially penalised and plunged into poverty because of the crisis. Action is needed to increase the rate of statutory sick pay and relax rules on benefits to stop unfair punishment of disabled people by sanctions or long waits for financial support.

Mark Hodgkinson is chief executive of disability equality charity Scope