People shielding from Covid-19 face ‘catch-22’ trying to hold onto jobs

Citizens Advice is demanding further protection for workers with underlying health conditions instructed told to shield at home to avoid Covid-19

Covid-19 has hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest, with recent figures suggesting half a million UK households are in danger of becoming homeless as a result of the economic impact of the crisis, while half a billion could be plunged into poverty worldwide.

Now new research has highlighted the struggle of those told to shield at home due to underlying health conditions, who are facing plummeting incomes and possible redundancy due to a “flaw” in the government’s guidelines.

An investigation by Citizens Advice showed that four in ten (41 per cent) of those in the shielded group have lost at least 20% of their income since the start of the coronavirus outbreak – with more than a quarter (27 per cent) losing 60 per cent or more.

The charity is warning that people face a catch-22 due to government guidance which advises 2.5 million people who are “extremely clinically vulnerable” to shield at home, along with their family members, until at least the end of June – but does not oblige employers to furlough them.

Analysis of around 2,000 of all employment cases Citizens Advice has seen since April 14 showed over 70 per cent of those who are shielding or are at higher risk from coronavirus – such as those who are pregnant or have diabetes – were not furloughed.

Concerning figures showed that 12 per cent of the shielded group are working outside of the home despite the potential risk to their health. Frontline Citizens Advice staff working with those in the shielded group report that they do so out of fear of losing their jobs if they try to negotiate with their employer.

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As Chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to set out further details to the Job Retention Scheme, the charity is calling for the most vulnerable workers, including those in the shielded group, or who share a household with someone in the shielded group, to have a right to be furloughed for as long as their work would require them to breach public health advice. 

Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Gillian Guy said: The government’s extraordinary interventions have protected millions of jobs and incomes, but some of the most vulnerable have still fallen through the safety net.

“We’re already seeing worrying cases of people being caught in a catch-22 where they have been denied furlough and asked to work in direct contradiction of public health advice. We fear the situation could worsen as more workplaces reopen.

“Unless people who are shielding have a right to be furloughed while their health is at risk, some will continue to face an impossible choice: paying the bills or protecting their health.”

The call comes just three weeks after analysis for the District Councils’ Network predicted that 500,00 households could face homelessness due to Covid-19.

Frontline workers, lone parents and young people are among the groups most at risk, the organisation said.

Meanwhile, UN human rights expert Professor Philip Alston issued a damning statement on the impacts of Covid-19 on those living in poverty — labelling many governments’ response to the crisis “cruel, inhumane and self-defeating.”

He also warned that the coronavirus crisis could push more than half a billion extra people into poverty, citing the International Labour Organisation estimate that the equivalent of almost 200 million full-time jobs will disappear in the coming months.

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