New strains of coronavirus are spreading like wildfire.
The new strain of the virus is 50% to 70% more transmissible and levels of infections are increasing to record levels, leading to huge strains on hospitals across the country.
Disabled people make up the majority of those who have died from Covid-19 - government statistics show that disabled people accounted for 3 in 5 covid-19 deaths. This is why it is imperative that, going into this new lockdown, disabled people who are told to shield can do so effectively.
This new lockdown is having a tangible impact on everyone. It impacts on many workers physical and mental health as well as livelihoods and income.
This is particularly true of those who’ve been asked to shield. A group the government have termed ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, which means they have a higher risk of severe illness if infected.
Evidence suggests that in England this group is almost 4% of the population, or 1 in 25 people, and that they are disproportionately more likely to be disabled.
Disabled workers previously asked to shield told the TUC they felt forgotten and overlooked. They told us that the first lockdown left them isolated, without access to basic needs like food and a negative impact on both their physical and mental health1.
The government must do better this time.
Government advice to those who should shield
Their guidance is that those advised to shield should no longer attend work, school, college or university.
And that they should limit the time they spend outside their home, only going out for medical appointments, exercise or if it is essential.
Many people asked to shield will have done so already and they and their employers will have a good understanding of how to proceed throughout this lockdown.
However, it is important for employers and workers to understand the changing nature of the shielding group.
Since the start of the pandemic, workers will have come on and off the shielding list as their health conditions have changed. For example, those who were newly diagnosed with cancer and are undergoing active chemotherapy would have only just be put on the shielding list.
To avoid any confusion, everyone who needs to shield will be sent a letter by the government to confirm their shield status. However, receiving confirmation you should shield has not been a seamless process in the past.
In the first lockdown many people who were at very high risk from the virus were not on the list of those who should shield and, as a result, did not receive a letter advising them to do so.
Government guidance says, a GP or hospital clinician can add individuals to the Shielded Patient List if, based on their clinical judgement, they deem to them be at higher risk of serious illness if they catch the virus.
Workers who do not receive a letter telling them shield but who think they should be on the list should speak to their clinician or GP.
It is vital that workers advised to shield should stay at home to protect their health, however, being told to shield and being able to afford to do so are two different things.
We’ve been told that although employers have access to the furlough scheme not all of them are using it so often those most at risk from the virus, are not being furloughed.
Employers should ensure that shielding workers who cannot work from home are offered an alternative role they can fulfil from home. Failing that, shielding workers should be furloughed.
Workers told to shield from any sector, public, private or the charity/third sector, who can not work from home but cannot return to the workplace must be furloughed. And to ensure this group’s health, the job retention scheme should be open to workers who live with someone told to shield and who cannot work from home.
Nobody should be losing pay as a result of an existing health condition and NHS advice to shield. No one should have to choose between their life and livelihood.
This is why the government, upon the urging of unions, has extended the job retention scheme to the end of April 2021 and which means furloughed workers will continue to receive up to 80% of their salary up to £2,500 which employers can claim back from the government. Employers can, and we believe should where they can afford it, top up wages to 100 per cent.
The government must also make sure benefits like statutory sick pay and universal credit pay the real living wage. It must repair the UK’s safety net as far too many people, around 14 million, were already living in poverty before the virus struck. Disabled people are disproportionality effected by this as nearly half of all people living in poverty in the UK are disabled themselves or live with someone who is.
People who lose their jobs must get the support they need to make ends meet and to get back on their feet.
Without fixing these benefits, many risk being plunged into poverty.
The TUC is calling on all employers to:
ensure that shielding workers who cannot work from home are offered an alternative role they can fulfil from home. Failing that, shielding workers should be furloughed.
The TUC is calling on the government to:
raise the basic level of Universal Credit for the duration of the outbreak to 80% of the real living wage – or £260 a week
raise sick pay from £94 a week to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the Real Living Wage – around £320 a week.
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