Is your household income taking a hit due to coronavirus?
Read our nurse’s guide to financial support available to anyone affected by the COVID-19 pandemic
- The government is providing extra support for people whose finances have been affected by COVID-19
- Find out about statutory sick pay if you are self-isolating; employment and support allowance, universal credit and how to get help to cover housing costs and council tax
- Advice for nursing students and retired nurses joining the temporary register, and signposts to further advice and help
The COVID-19 crisis has forced the government to implement various financial measures, including special support for people in employment and self-employment.
If you or your partner are too sick to work, or have to self-isolate, there may be welfare benefits you can claim, or other types of financial relief to help you through the pandemic.
Statutory sick pay
If you are off work because you have to self-isolate you should be eligible for sick pay. Statutory sick pay (SSP) of £95.85 per week for up to 28 weeks can now be claimed from day one of your illness, a relaxation of the normal three-day waiting time. However, if you are an NHS employee on an Agenda for Change contract you will get contractual sick pay (which includes SSP).
If you are employed through a nursing agency, you are classed as an employee and can get SSP. You cannot get SSP if you are self-employed.
Employment and support allowance
If you do not qualify for SSP, or have exhausted the 28-week entitlement, you may be able to claim employment and support allowance (ESA).
The basic amount is £74.35 per week. This can normally be awarded to you if you have ‘limited capability for work’, that is you are not fit for work.
Any person who has COVID-19 symptoms or is self-isolating will be deemed not fit for work. The usual ‘waiting days’ before you can be paid SSP or ESA have been suspended.
Whether or not you qualify for SSP or ESA, you may be able to claim universal credit (UC). The basic allowances in UC and working tax credit have been increased by about £20 a week, or £1,000 a year.
Claims for ESA must be made through the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) UC helpline: 0800 328 5644/textphone: 0800 328 1344; or in Northern Ireland: 0800 085 6318.
All claims for UC should be made online.
Be aware that the DWP is dealing with a huge increase in benefit claims due to the crisis, so it is advisable to start the claim process as soon as you believe you may be entitled to any benefits.
If you claim either sick pay or ESA because you have COVID-19 or are self-isolating, you will need to provide an ‘isolation note’.
If you apply for UC, the application process will involve verifying your identity and a new claim interview over the telephone with a work coach.
If you already receive a means-tested benefit awarded to you before UC was introduced, such as tax credits or housing benefit (known as ‘legacy benefits’), you should get advice before claiming UC.
Benefits for ill health and low income
Statutory sick pay (SSP)
- Paid by employers to qualifying employees who are too sick to work
- Non-means-tested; no history of National Insurance (NI) contributions is required
- Normal earnings must be at least £118 per week
- Payable for up to 28 weeks
Employment and support allowance (ESA)
- Paid to people under pension age who are unable to work due to illness or disability
- Only for those not able to get SSP
- Claimants must have paid sufficient NI contributions during recent tax years (2017-18 and 2018-19)
- Non-means-tested, but an occupational/personal pension may reduce the amount you are eligible for
- Payable to claimants in different circumstances, including people who are too ill or disabled to work, as well as jobseekers
- Maximum amount payable depends on individual’s circumstances as either a single claimant or a couple making a joint claim
- A standard allowance plus extra amounts for children, caring responsibilities, childcare costs and help paying rent
- May be paid on top of non-means-tested benefits such as ESA
Financial assistance and council tax relief
A £500 million hardship fund has been set up to provide additional relief for households in England that are struggling to pay their council tax bills.
In Scotland, the existing council tax support fund has been increased by £50 million.
Contact your local council to apply for a council tax reduction. Some authorities are allowing a two-month payment holiday so that residents can pay their bills from June to March instead of the usual April to January payment pattern.
Help with housing costs and council tax
- Universal credit (UC), or housing benefit for some existing claimants, can provide help with paying your rent
- The amount of the housing costs element in UC, or housing benefit, may be limited to less than your actual rent for a variety of reasons
- If you are paying a mortgage on the home in which you live, and do not have any income from earnings, you may be able to get loan payments as part of UC to help pay the interest on your mortgage
- Help with paying your council tax bill may be available through council tax reduction, which is means-tested and administered by local councils
- In Northern Ireland, rate relief – or rent rebates if you claim UC – are available to help pay rates
The ‘mortgage holiday scheme’ has been introduced for workers who are struggling to pay their mortgage due to loss of earnings. Contact your lender about suspending your mortgage payments for up to three months.
If you live in privately rented accommodation, the levels of housing cost help you can claim through UC (or housing benefit for existing claimants) have increased. Lenders and landlords have been told they must not repossess any property for at least three months from late March.
If you live with a partner and they have lost work and earnings due to the COVID-19 crisis, the financial assistance schemes introduced by the Coronavirus Act 2020 are likely to help. These include the government paying up to 80% of usual earnings or profits of people who have been laid off temporarily. The schemes also apply to people who are self-employed and unable to work.
Benefits for carers
- Carer’s allowance is a payment for a carer who is not a paid carer, such as a relative of a person with a disability
- The payment is non-means-tested. However, if your net earnings exceed £123 per week, you cannot get carer’s allowance. No rules on other income or capital apply
- The person you are caring for must already be entitled to a disability benefit, such as personal independence payment, disability living allowance or attendance allowance. If you are looking after a person only because they have COVID-19, you are unlikely to qualify for carer’s allowance, unless they either have a pre-existing disability or a terminal illness
- Some means-tested benefits include extra money for a carer, such as the carer element in universal credit
I’m joining the COVID-19 emergency register – what do I need to know?
If you are a nurse returning to practice, or a final-year nursing student considering joining the temporary register during the crisis, you should bear in mind the following, seeking advice where necessary.
If you are claiming any means-tested benefits, including pension credit if you are of pension age, most earnings will be counted as income and will reduce the amount of benefit you are paid; it could remove your entitlement completely. If you have a partner who is still earning or can claim income from one of the COVID-19 financial support schemes, their income will also be counted.
Retired nurses returning to practice should note that measures have been introduced to avoid any negative effect on your NHS pension. These suspend the normal rules that allow the ‘abatement’ or suspension of the NHS pension of healthcare professionals who either have recently retired from the NHS but return to work, or have retired and already returned to work but are now increasing their working hours.
If you are concerned about any impact that working will have on your existing NHS pension, you should seek advice from a financial adviser. Ideally they will be regulated and authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and/or the Financial Conduct Authority, and will be listed on the Financial Services Register.
Varinder: agency nurse, partner furloughed, mortgage
Varinder gets nursing work through an agency but has had to self-isolate. Her partner has been furloughed, or temporarily laid-off, as he is a chef and his work has been suspended. The couple has a mortgage.
Varinder can claim statutory sick pay by telling her agency that she is self-isolating, and she should give them an isolation note. She and her partner should contact their mortgage lender about a payment holiday.
Her partner can apply to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme if his employer can keep him on the payroll, in which case his employer can claim for 80% of his wages, up to a monthly cap of £2,500.
Curtis: third-year nursing student, lone parent, renting
Curtis is wondering what joining the temporary nursing register might mean for him financially. He lives in a rented flat with his two young children.
Curtis may be able to get universal credit (UC), although a full benefit check would be required to confirm this. The UC assessment would compare his needs with his resources. His needs would include a basic allowance, money for his children and for registered childcare, and help with his rent.
Some of his student finance will affect what, if any, UC he is paid. If he does any paid work after joining the register his earnings will also be taken into account, but a ‘work allowance’ will be applied so that some of his earnings are disregarded.
A few points to understand about the UK welfare benefits system
Universal credit (UC) has become the main means-tested benefit nationwide for most new working-age claimants. If you are an existing claimant getting a legacy benefit you may be able to keep this until you are moved to UC. However, certain changes of circumstances will usually mean that you must claim UC.
There is a ‘benefit cap’ for working-age claimants that limits the overall amount of non-means-tested and means-tested benefits paid to you and your family. However, not all benefits are counted and some claimants are exempt from the cap.
The welfare benefits and rules on entitlement are the same across the UK, except where stated. DWP administers most benefits in England, Wales and Scotland, although Social Security Scotland now has powers to deliver some benefits. In Northern Ireland, the Department for Communities manages citizens’ benefits, and local taxation is different to that in Great Britain. HMRC administers tax credits and child benefit for the UK.
When is a benefit means-tested and when is it not?
Most of the major UK welfare benefits can be categorised broadly as non-means-tested and means-tested.
In non-means-tested benefits:
- Entitlement is usually based on the individual's circumstances.
- Entitlement can depend on payment of National Insurance (NI) contributions – usually paid in recent tax years.
- Any other income or capital, such as savings, is usually disregarded.
- Some are taxable.
In means-tested benefits:
- If the claimant lives with their partner and/or has dependent children, means-tested benefits are assessed on and paid for the ‘benefit family’ as a unit; otherwise the claimant will be assessed and awarded payments as an individual claimant.
- Dependent children include those aged under 20 and on a course of full-time non-advanced education or approved training.
- Income of the claimant and/or partner is counted in the financial assessment, but some income is ignored, for example disability benefits.
- Savings worth more than £16,000 held by the claimant and/or partner makes them ineligible for the benefit.
- Savings of a claimant and/or their partner valued at £6,000 or less is ignored; capital worth between £6,001 and £16,000 is treated as creating ‘tariff income’ and is counted in the assessment. There are different rules on savings that apply for tax credits and pension credit.
- The claimant and/or partner do not need to have paid NI contributions.
- Payments are not taxable.
Where to go for advice and financial support
RCN welfare service
Financial advice and guidance for members affected by COVID-19.
College members can call RCN Direct on 0345 772 6100 to seek advice on welfare benefits and other financial issues, debt and housing.
Lamplight Support Service
RCN Foundation via the RCN’s Lamplight Support Service has a benevolent fund that provides financial support to nursing staff who face financial hardship. Lamplight is open to RCN members and non-members and gives advice on maximising income, including benefit entitlement.
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust offers financial support to nurses and healthcare assistants in financial hardship. During the COVID-19 crisis, it will also consider cases where a partner’s income has been adversely affected.
Charlie Callanan is a welfare rights adviser for a national charity