The DWP has reportedly declared business as usual for benefit claimants as the UK prepares itself for an increasingly likely Coronavirus epidemic.
DWP staff have been told that only those advised by medical staff to self isolate should be exempt from brutal benefit sanctions for failing to attend appointments at the Jobcentre*. Meanwhile there is no information on the website for those on disability benefits called in to be assessed for Personal Independences Payments – the benefit for those with additional living costs due to sickness or disability. And Work Capability Assessments, designed to strip sick and disabled people of out of work benefits by declaring them fit for work, appear to be continuing unscathed.
The DWP’s own guidance acknowledges that benefit sanctions are likely to cause a decline in health even at the best of times. There is ample evidence of the stress and ill health caused to sickness and disability benefit claimants due to regular assessments carried out by private companies like Atos and Maximus. Yet all will still be forced to attend Jobcentres and assessment centres or face desperate poverty as benefits are sanctioned or stopped for non attendance. At the very least vultures like Atos could provide some information on what those facing benefit assessments should do if they are sick or have been advised to self isolate. But as the screenshot above shows, they haven’t even bothered to do that.
If Boris Johnson truly wishes to protect the most vulnerable as he claims then removing the threat of benefit sanctions, and halting reassessments for sickness and disability claimants, should be an immediate priority. Those awaiting new claims could still be assessed on a voluntary basis, with the promise of benefits backdated should they choose not to attend – or even better interim payments until the crisis is resolved. The economic cost of such a move will be neglible and with some workplaces closing, and events being cancelled across the globe, there seems little reason not to do this now. It may not make a huge difference in slowing the spread of the virus, although it will do no harm, but it will at least send a message to those with least that should the worst happen then this Government will have their back. So don’t hold your fucking breath. The spite of the DWP knows no bounds.
Cancelling PIP and WCA re-assessments would also free up thousands of so-called medical staff who carry out the tests to go and do some proper healthcare for a change should hospitals become over-stretched. Meanwhile Jobcentre busybodies could be stationed in public toilets to harass people who don’t wash their hands or something which equally matches their skill set.
Those sanctioned or denied benefits cannot stock up on food and stay at home if advised to by medical staff. Many will find it difficult to afford heating or hot water, buy basic hygeine products, or medication for their symptoms should they become ill. Some will have no choice but to queue up at foodbanks for supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people are currently living a hand to mouth existence due meagre benefits, sanctions and the relentlessly cruel social security system. Scrapping all benefit sanctions, right now, would prevent some of this suffering immediately and allow people to build their health back up, even a little, before the worst of this virus hits.
It is understandable that authorities want to avoid panic – we don’t yet know how far Coronavirus will spread or how deadly and infectious it may yet turn out to be. But there is little more that is panic inducing then seeing a brown envelope drop through your letterbox from the DWP compelling you to attend an Atos assessment or informing you of a benefit sanction or stoppage. Removing this stress from claimant’s lives now would make a huge difference to the resiliance of the poorest and might just improve their health.
If things become as bad as they might then the sooner sanctions and disability benefit assessments are stopped or suspended then the more lives are likely to be saved. And if things don’t turn out so bad and the virus is brought under control then the only consequence will be hundreds of thousands of people having some respite from poverty and ill health casued by the brutal benefits regime. The tragedy is that to a Tory government, obsessed with punishing the poor, it seems that is too high a price to pay.
*Current advice is to contact your Jobcentre as soon as possible to avoid sanction if you are unable to attend an appointment due to being advised to self-isolate by 111 or a medical professional.