CORONAVIRUS LATEST

Hello,

Many of you have understandably been in touch regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. My office and I have been doing our best to respond to hundreds of queries from individuals, groups, businesses and others, pointing people to information and also to feed in their concerns covering a very wide range of issues that have been helping to inform measures that Government has been putting in place to help us all get through this crisis. Please do not hesitate to share further details with us if necessary.

 

This is the biggest public health crisis we have faced in a generation and we must all work together and play our own part in protecting ourselves and each other, as well as our NHS, from this disease.

 

This is a lengthy bulletin and further announcements will have been made since compiling this but it sets out many of the coronavirus related measures now in place, with related links for further details which Government have introduced to help get us through this difficult time.

 

COVID-19 symptoms

For clarity, for most people, COVID-19 produces mild symptoms. These include a cough, high temperature (fever) and shortness of breath, and you’ll be fine after plenty of rest. However, for some (particularly, but not solely, older people or those with an underlying health condition), it can lead to severe respiratory issues.

If anyone in your household develops a fever or persistent cough, the advice is you must all stay home for 14 days. Other ‘social distancing’ measures announced this week includes stopping all non-essential contact with others – this is especially important for the over 70s, people with underlying health conditions and pregnant women and work from home if you can. For further details please click here.

We can all do our bit: wash your hands regularly with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds, try to avoid touching your face (particularly nose, eyes and mouth), wipe down surfaces and objects regularly and use a tissue if you cough or sneeze, then bin it.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

At the time of writing, the latest guidance advises on social distancing measures we should all be taking in order to reduce social interaction between people to reduce the transmission of coronavirus. This includes avoiding contact with someone displaying symptoms of coronavirus; avoiding non-essential use of public transport; working from home where possible; avoiding large and small gatherings in public spaces; avoiding gatherings with friends and family, only going out when absolutely essential and then keeping at least 2 metres from other people. This weekend there has been clear guidance stating that essential travel does not include, visits to second homes, whether for isolation purposes or holidays. Those who need to are asked to use the telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services.

 

The government are advising those who are at increased risk of severe illness to be particularly strict in following these measures. This group includes those who are aged 70 or older (regardless of medical conditions) and those who are under 70 with an underlying health condition (listed in full on here). There are some clinical conditions which put people at even higher risk of severe illness and if you are in this category, this week the NHS in England will directly contact you with advice on the more stringent measures you should take. For now, you should rigorously follow the social distancing advice in full. This guidance is likely to evolve in the days and weeks ahead so for up-to-

date information please visit here.

 

LOCAL COMMUNITY

It is vital that we must all act together. We must all be considerate in the way we shop and in looking after ourselves, our families and others in the weeks and months ahead. I understand your concerns but buying more than is needed can mean that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.

 

A wave of community groups have been set up across Somerset to assist those in need, which is truly heartening to see. Please visit www.sparksomerset.org.uk/ in the first instance for the latest information and guidance on local community support. If you cannot leave your house or you have run out anything essential and do not have friends or family nearby that are able to assist, please do reach out.

 

Amongst those offering to help are many who are volunteering to do a range of roles at Musgrove Park Hospital. Having been contacted by some concerned constituents regarding parking charges for these people and also for those working extra-long shifts at the hospital I have been liaising with the Chief Executive of Musgrove over the weekend to ensure that a system is in place so that they are not penalised unfairly over parking charges. I am assured that the hospital are sorting the system and will be announcing details shortly. On this note, of course all thanks and blessings to those working in the NHS and social care right now and to the amazing 4000 nurses and 500 doctors who have signed up to return to the NHS in the last 48 hours.

 

Somerset School closures

 

‘Key workers’ are now defined as workers in health & social care, education & childcare, key public services, local & national government, transport, utilities and work critical to the COVID-19 response. Some schools in Somerset will be providing wrap-around care, and school staff may be redeployed in other roles or to other sites. Full details on this along with FAQs are available here. I am pleased that farmers and those working in the food supply chain have also been included in this category, after working with many of them to raise this issue.

Somerset Businesses

 

In recent weeks I have been working to raise many issues facing businesses of all types, including quite rightly, the self-employed, across Taunton Deane to ensure a system is in place to try and help them weather the storm.

Heart of the SW Growth Hub (https://www.heartofswgrowthhub.co.uk/) is the main source of advice and guidance. It offers businesses assistance and can sign post to additional help available.

Please do be aware that this is a rapid and changing set of circumstances, but by registering with the Growth Hub, businesses can receive updates as more information and details on support emerges. Alternatively, email info@heartofswgrowthhub.co.uk or phone – 03456 047 047.

There is also a support phone number for anyone self-employed available at 0300 456 3565.

 

How communities can help

 

Spark has launched ‘Corona Helpers’, a free online platform on which COVID-19 support groups can recruit and manage volunteers and individuals can pledge their support.
The Community Council for Somerset (community / village agents) are already working in communities with different groups and individuals to make sure the vulnerable are identified and supported. Local village agent details can be found at https://somersetagents.org/somerset-village-agents/

 

Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK is compiling a list of local groups set up on social media in an effort to share learning, resources and support. To find out what groups may be in your area, or to register a group, go to: https://covidmutualaid.org/local-groups/

Emotional health and wellbeing

This is a concerning time for us all. A new webpage is set up at https://www.somerset.gov.uk/coronavirus/covid-19-mental-health-information/ on mental health and wellbeing. Here you can find advice on maintaining a healthy lifestyle, staying connected, coping strategies, mental health and wellbeing advice if you are self-isolating and helping children cope. If you feel you or someone in your community needs to talk to someone, please contact Somerset Mindline on 01823 276892 (open seven days a week).

Latest Somerset County Council Coronavirus service updates can be found online at www.somerset.gov.uk. And to keep up-to-date with all the latest COVID-19 information, visit the NHS site at www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/

NATIONAL ECONOMIC RESPONSE

At the Budget, the Chancellor set out the government’s economic response and put forward a package of temporary, timely and targeted measures to support public services, individuals and businesses through the economic disruption caused by coronavirus. The Chancellor set out further measures on 17 March and 20 March to provide immediate economic support to businesses and workers.

 

The Chancellor extended the support available to individuals and businesses, including an unprecedented package of government-backed and guaranteed loans, which make available an initial £330 billion of guarantees – equivalent to 15% of GDP. This represent one of the most comprehensive economic responses of any government anywhere in the world, to date.

 

COVID-19 Response Fund

 

To support the NHS and public services, the Chancellor announced at Budget an initial £5 billion COVID-19 Response fund.

 

Statutory Sick Pay, Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance

 

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will now be available directly from employers for eligible individuals either diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are unable to work because they are self-isolating in line with government advice. This is in addition to the change announced by the Prime Minister that SSP will be payable from day 1 instead of day 4 for affected individuals.

Those who are advised to self-isolate will be able to obtain an “isolation note” by contacting NHS 111 online, rather than visiting a doctor. This can be used by employees where their employers require evidence. Where individuals need to check their eligibility for sick pay, they should speak to their employer about their entitlements, and can visit www.gov.uk/statutory-sick-pay for further information.

Those who are not eligible for SSP, for example the self-employed or people earning below the Lower Earnings Limit of £118 per week, can now more easily make a claim for Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance. As the Prime Minister has said, nobody will be penalised for doing the right thing and following the medical advice.

 

Local Authority Hardship Fund

 

At Budget, the Chancellor announced a £500 million Hardship Fund which will help local authorities to support economically vulnerable people and households.

 

Forbearance for consumers and impact on consumer’s credit files

 

The Financial Conduct Authority has called on firms to use the flexibility built into their rules to support consumers, considering customers’ individual circumstances. Many major lenders have already made statements to this effect. It is very important that anyone having difficulty paying back personal loans or credit as a result of COVID-19 talks to their lender. Where payment holidays as a result of COVID-19 are agreed with a lender, they are expected to record these in such a way that will not impact on people’s credit score.

Statutory Sick Pay Refund for Businesses

To support businesses experiencing increases in costs or financial disruptions, small and medium-sized businesses and employers will be able to reclaim up to two weeks’ SSP paid for sickness absence due to COVID-19. That could provide over £2 billion for up to 2 million employers. The eligibility criteria for the scheme will be as follows:

  • Employers will be able to reclaim up to two weeks for any employee who has claimed SSP (according to the new eligibility criteria) as a result of COVID-19;
  • Employers with fewer than 250 employees will be eligible. The size of an employer will be determined by the number of people they employed as of 28 February 2020;
  • Employers should maintain records of staff absences, but employees will not need to provide a GP fit note.

 

If you have any questions on the implementation and operation of the rebate please contact HMRC.

 

Business Rates Relief

 

The government will increase the business rates retail discount to 100% for one year for businesses with a rateable value of less than £51,000, while expanding it to the leisure and hospitality sectors. This tax cut is worth over £1 billion, saving each business up to £25,000.

 

The Chancellor has announced an extension to this relief by removing the £51,000 rateable value threshold. This means all eligible businesses, large and small, in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors will now pay no business rates in England for 12 months, from 1 April 2020. This business rates holiday now also applies to nurseries.
Any enquiries on eligibility for, or provision of, the reliefs should be directed to the relevant local authority.

 

Small Business Grant Funding

 

At Budget, the Chancellor announced that all businesses currently eligible for small business rate relief (SBRR) or rural rates relief will receive a one-off grant of £3,000 each. The Government have now increased the value of this to £10,000 per business, benefitting around 700,000 businesses in England.

Further, all eligible small businesses in the retail, hospitality, and leisure sectors will receive a cash grant – not just those in receipt of SBRR. Businesses in these sectors with a property with a rateable value below £15,000 will receive a grant of £10,000, while businesses in these sectors with a property with a rateable value of between £14,999 and £51,000, will receive a flat grant of £25,000.

 

For more information please contact your local authority.

 

Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme

A new temporary Business Interruption Loan Scheme, delivered by the British Business Bank, is now open, to support businesses to access bank lending, overdrafts, asset finance and invoice finance up to a value of £5 million. The government will provide lenders with a guarantee of 80% on each loan (subject to a per lender cap on claims) to give lenders further confidence in continuing to provide finance to SMEs. The government will not charge businesses or banks for this guarantee and will also cover the first 6 months of interest payments and fees.

 

More information on the scheme, including the list of lenders who will be offering finance under it, can be found on the British Business Bank website: www.british-businessbank.co.uk/ourpartners/coronavirus-business-interruption-loan-scheme-cbils/

 

COVID-19 Corporate Financing facility and new legal power in the COVID-19 Bill

 

The Government announced a new COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility to support companies which are fundamentally strong but have been affected by a short-term funding squeeze. This will act as a vehicle to support corporates who would ordinarily seek market-based finance to strengthen working capital but find themselves struggling to access financial markets in this uncertain operating environment.

 

Through the COVID-19 Bill, the government will have the legal power to offer whatever further financial support we consider necessary, be that through loans, guarantees, grants or other tools.

 

Time To Pay

All businesses and self-employed people in financial distress, and with outstanding tax liabilities, may be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through HMRC’s Time To Pay service. These arrangements are agreed on a case-by-case basis and are tailored to individual circumstances and liabilities.

 

These businesses can contact HMRC’s new dedicated COVID-19 helpline and they will discuss specific circumstances with businesses and individuals, including cancelling penalties and interest where they have had administrative difficulties contacting or paying HMRC. The number to call is 0800 0159 559.

Insurance

If the only barrier to a business making an insurance claim was a lack of clarity on whether the government ordered businesses to shut down, the Chancellor’s announcement will enable those businesses, which have an insurance policy that covers both pandemics and government ordered closure, to make a claim – subject to the terms and conditions of their policy. Businesses should contact their insurers if in doubt.

 

Mortgage & Rental relief

Following discussions with industry, mortgage lenders will offer repayment holidays of 3 months to households in financial difficulty due to coronavirus while they get back on their feet. Monthly mortgage payments tend to be the largest outgoing for the vast majority of households and lenders are keen to reassure homeowners that the industry is working hard to put measures in place to support them during these uncertain times.

Customers who are concerned about their current financial situation should get in touch with their lender at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss if this is a suitable option for them.

 

Recognising the additional pressures the virus may put on landlords, this three month mortgage payment holiday has also been extended to buy-to-let landlords whose tenants are experiencing difficult due to coronavirus. This will alleviate the pressure on landlords, who will be concerned about meeting mortgage payments themselves, and will mean no unnecessary pressure is put on their tenants as a result.

 

On 18 March the Communities Secretary announced a package of measures to protect

renters and landlords affected by coronavirus. Emergency legislation will be taken forward so that landlords will not be able to start proceedings to evict tenants for at least a three-month period. As a result, no renters in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction. At the end of this period, landlords and tenants will be expected to work together to establish an affordable repayment plan, considering tenants’ individual circumstances.

 

Delaying reform to off-payroll working rules

The reform to the off-payroll working rules (commonly known as IR35), that would have applied for people contracting their services to large or medium-sized organisations outside the public sector, will be delayed for one year from 6 April 2020 until 6 April 2021. Delaying this reform will support these businesses and individuals, who will not need to implement and adjust to these changes until next year.

Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme

The Government has announced a UK-wide scheme to pay a grant to any business for each worker they identify as furloughed. A furloughed worker would remain employed by the business but would not undertake any work or be expected to be available for work.

 

This is to support those who would otherwise be faced with no choice but to make these workers redundant or ask them to take a period of unpaid leave. Any UK employer with a PAYE scheme, who promises to retain these staff even though they won’t be doing any work for the employer, will be eligible to apply directly to HMRC for a grant under this scheme. These grants will cover 80% of the salary of retained workers up to a total of £2,500 a month – more than the median monthly earnings. This will be available for at least the next three months, it will be available for as long as is needed.

 

However, firms need cash now so the Government will be deferring tax payments, as covered below. The principle, which has been discussed with the TUC and Business Representative Organisations, is of sharing the burden between firms, workers and the government. While that means workers will see a reduction in pay, they will keep their jobs, and while firms will still have some costs, they will keep their workforce, ready to bounce back from this crisis.

 

Further information and details of the scheme will be shared in due course.

 

Deferring tax payments through VAT and Income Tax Self-Assessment

To help businesses pay people and keep them in work, the Government are deferring VAT payments due between now and the end of June. No business will have to make a VAT payment to HMRC in that period. They will have until the end of the financial year to repay.

Further, Income Tax Self-Assessment payments due in July 2020 will be deferred until January 2021, benefitting millions of self-employed taxpayers.

 

HMRC have also scaled up their Time to Pay offer to all firms and individuals who are in temporary financial distress as a result of Covid-19 and have outstanding tax liabilities. You can contact HMRC’s dedicated Covid-19 helpline to get practical help and advice. This can be reached by calling 0800 0159 559.

 

Universal Credit (UC) Standard Allowance and Working Tax Credit (WTC) Basic Element

 

To support individuals affected by COVID-19, today the Government have announced extra support for WTC and UC claimants. From 6 April 2020, the Government are increasing both the UC standard allowance and the WTC basic element for the next 12 months, by £1,000 a year.

 

The UC standard allowance will increase by £86.67 per month (equivalent to £20 per week), on top of the planned annual uprating. The WTC basic element will also increase by £20 per week, on top of the planned uprating. All existing WTC recipients will benefit and all UC claimants, both new and existing, will benefit from these measures. These new rates will be automatically reflected in claimants’ awards.

The Government estimate that 2.5 million households will immediately benefit from the UC measure, as well as those who become unemployed or whose earnings decrease because of the impact of COVID-19. A further 1.6 million households will benefit from the WTC measure, including those whose work hours decrease because of the impact of COVID-19. For more information claimants can visit GOV.UK.

UC Minimum Income Floor (MIF)

 

From 6 April 2020, the Government are temporarily relaxing the MIF for all self-employed UC claimants affected by the economic impacts of coronavirus, for the duration of the outbreak.

 

This means that if self-employed claimants’ work, and therefore earnings, have significantly reduced due to the impact of Public Health England COVID-19 guidance on self-isolation and social distancing, and the wider economic impacts of the outbreak, their UC award will increase to reflect their lower earnings.

 

For example, a single, self-employed cleaner whose work reduces from 37 to 10 hours a week at the National Living Wage will see the full impact of that 27-hour reduction – and lost earnings – reflected in their next month’s UC award. If the MIF were to continue to apply, their award would assume only two hours’ worth of lost earnings (as the MIF assumes 35 hours at National Living Wage).

 

Overall, from 6 April, this measure will benefit many of the c.150,000 self-employed people who currently claim UC and who experience a significant loss of earnings as a result of COVID-19. Of the c.5m self-employed people in the UK, around 55% are likely to be eligible for UC support if they find themselves unable to work.

Housing support for private renters - Local Housing Allowance (LHA)

 

This is a particularly stressful time for private renters. The Government have already taken steps to protect tenants, and the Secretary of State for Housing announced on 17 March that no renter in private or social accommodation needs to be concerned about the threat of eviction for at least the next three months.

The Chancellor has also announced that, from this April, all new and existing private renters claiming Universal Credit and Housing Benefit will benefit from additional housing support. All Local Housing Allowance rates will be uplifted to the 30th percentile of market rents. This is worth an extra £14 a week on average for the 1.2 million existing claimants and any additional Universal Credit claimants who rent in the private sector. This will benefit renters in every part of our country, protecting against rent arrears during a difficult time for many renters.

 

New Universal Credit claimants can receive an advance of their first month’s award on day 1 of their claim if needed. And the Government have removed the requirement for claimants to attend a jobcentre to receive their advance. This will ensure there is no

barrier to people being able to claim housing support while in self-isolation.

 

Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme

 

The Chancellor announced that the interest free period of the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme has been increased from 6 to 12 months. This will help to ensure that all businesses facing cash-flow difficulties during this difficult time will have access to the finance they need. The scheme will be up and running by the start of next week.

The Government have also made clear that further measures will be announced next week to ensure that larger and medium sized companies can access the credit they need.

FURTHER INFOMATION

 

For additional information regarding support for individuals and businesses impacted by the coronavirus please click here. Please note, this will be updated with further information to ensure you can access the support you need.

 

If you require further information, the government’s COVID-19 Action Plan can be found here

 

The multi-billion-pound commitments the Government made at the Budget and on Tuesday represented bold, comprehensive action. The Government went even further last week, keeping their promise that they will do whatever it takes to get our country through the impacts of COVID-19.

 

It is a tough time and we must all work together to get through this. Today I will be involved in bringing through the emergency Coronavirus legislation that will put in place tools that may be necessary in future to tackle this crisis. Every eventuality is being considered.

 

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if I can be of any assistance at rebecca.pow.mp@parliament.uk or 01823 443 062

Best regards to you all and please do share this bulletin if it may be useful to others.