Pressure builds on Sunak as shielding guidance eases and government reduces furlough support on 1 August

A coalition of charities is urging the chancellor to protect the jobs of workers who have been shielding, warning they will be put in an “impossible position” when restrictions ease.

An open letter to Rishi Sunak was signed by 15 charities, including Age UK and Macmillan Cancer Support. It raises concerns that those who’ve been shielding will be forced to choose between their health and their job.

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“An impossible position”

Shielding will be paused in England, Scotland and north of Ireland from 1 August. Extremely clinically vulnerable people who have stayed at home to protect themselves from coronavirus (Covid-19) will then no longer be required to stay home. This could result in pressure to return to work.

The signatories of the letter warn that these employees are at risk of being made redundant, or could be forced to return to the workplace when they do not feel it’s safe to do so. Some 2.2m people deemed extremely vulnerable to coronavirus are shielding in England. Around 595,000 (28%) of those usually work, according to the charities.

The letter to Sunak says:

Our concern is that, especially as your furlough arrangements start to unwind and the shielding scheme is paused from next week, some of these workers will find themselves in an impossible position.

This is because if their occupation is one which they cannot carry out from home, and if it is extremely difficult to make their workplace safe for them, they may be forced to choose between putting their health on the line by returning, or staying safe by giving up their job.

The signatories say this is “desperately unfair” for those who have made “great sacrifices” by staying at home. They’ve called on the chancellor to take action and protect their jobs as well as supporting employers. This could include extending the furlough scheme for those who’ve been shielding or are at high-risk, the letter adds.

HEALTH Coronavirus Shielded
(PA Graphics)

Survey of cancer patients

It comes after a survey, conducted by Macmillan Cancer Support with 2,000 adults, found that many cancer patients are fearful of returning to workplaces. 42% said they feel it’s currently unsafe for them to work outside of their home.

One in three (36%) people with cancer said the coronavirus crisis has affected their finances. And some of them said they’ve been left struggling to pay their bills.

Chris Askew, chief executive of Diabetes UK and a signatory of the letter, said:

No-one should be faced with the impossible task of choosing between their health, by returning to work in an unsafe environment, and their financial security.

The Government must ensure that employers are supported to take all the necessary measures to keep all employees safe if they are expected to attend work outside their home.

In addition, the Government should introduce a new support scheme for those clinically vulnerable people who are unable to return to a safe work environment.

Government response

When the shielding programme ends, medics should decide whether patients can reasonably be expected to work, depending on their workplace.

According to the government, employers have been told to make sure the shielded can work from home wherever possible, including moving them to another role if required. If employers cannot provide a safe working environment, those who are clinically vulnerable will be able to access financial support including statutory sick pay and welfare payments, it has said. A government spokesperson said:

We understand how challenging the outbreak pandemic has been for the clinically vulnerable and we have worked tirelessly to support them.

Employers must ensure the safety of those with such conditions when considering working arrangements, including whether work can be completed remotely.

Our wide-ranging support package worth an initial £160 billion includes the furlough scheme, which has paid the wages of 9.5 million people and has already been extended until October, loans, grants, and tax cuts and deferrals. People will also now benefit from the Job Retention Bonus which will support business and protect jobs. We also announced £750 million for charities so they can continue their important work, ensuring those on the front line are able to reach people who need help.

More pressure on Sunak

Meanwhile, Sunak has been told he has 24 hours to change course on the government’s furlough scheme or risk making a “historic mistake”. Labour has warned the chancellor that jobs could be lost if he doesn’t abandon his “one-size-fits-all” withdrawal of furlough support.

From 1 August, employers will have to pay National Insurance and pension contributions for their staff. And in September, companies will have to pay 10% of furloughed employees’ salaries – rising to 20% in October.

Labour’s campaign

Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds said the move could lead to a “python-like” squeeze on jobs in some of the sectors that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. She said:

The reward for months of hard work and sacrifice by the British people cannot be a P45.

It’s not too late for the Chancellor to see sense, change course and support the businesses and sectors that need it most. But, even if he does, there is still much to do…

The Government should back viable businesses that are still impacted by coronavirus, support the self-employed and come up with a plan to drive job creation as we emerge from the pandemic.

And it must ensure our NHS and care services are fully prepared for a second wave – because we won’t recover from this economic crisis until the Government gets a grip on the health crisis.

As part of its campaign, Labour has set out a five-point pledge, with a focus on protecting jobs and businesses. The party has urged the government to reform the furlough scheme so that it supports jobs in the worst-hit sectors and targets aid to struggling industries.

It has also called for a £1.7bn “fightback fund” to prevent firms going under, additional support to areas forced into local lockdowns, and an investment in infrastructure. Making workplaces safe and giving NHS and care services the resources to avoid a second wave is also outlined in the campaign. This is along with the protection of workers’ rights and increasing sick pay.

“The Treasury must heed the dire warnings and act before it’s too late”

SNP Treasury spokesperson Alison Thewliss also warned that changes to the furlough scheme are “dangerously premature”. She said:

The decision by the Tory Government to cut the furlough scheme in the middle of the global pandemic, and ahead of a potential second wave, is dangerously premature and poses a threat to thousands of jobs across Scotland and the UK.

With the first round of cuts to the income support scheme due to begin this Saturday, businesses are already having to plan for the worst…

Rather than abandoning firms and workers, the Treasury must heed the dire warnings and act before it’s too late.

A government source told the PA news agency that the support being provided is “comprehensive and generous”. They said:

This Government has worked tirelessly during this crisis to protect jobs, livelihoods and businesses. At every step we have acted at scale and at pace to ensure as many people as possible are supported during this difficult time…

It is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy, it is the most comprehensive and generous version of support that can be provided.

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