Benefits claimants who have been advised to stay at home amid the coronavirus outbreak will not have to physically attend job centres, the Chancellor has announced.
Instead, anyone self-isolating because of Covid-19 will be able to attend appointments either online or over the phone.
In his first Budget, Rishi Sunak pledged around £1 billion in measures to support people who are self-employed, working in the gig economy and on benefits.
Part of this will create a new £500 million hardship fund which local authorities will be able to use to “directly support vulnerable people in their local area”.
Mr Sunak said the response to the coronavirus outbreak would be to support those who get sick or cannot work “through funding our public services, and a strengthened safety net”.
Having set out measures for workers, he said in his budget speech: “But of course, not everyone is eligible for statutory sick pay.
“There are millions of people working hard, who are self-employed or in the gig economy.
“They will need our help too. So to support them, during this period, we’ll make it quicker and easier to get benefits.
“Those on contributory employment and support allowance will be able to claim from day one instead of day eight; to make sure that time spent off work due to sickness is reflected in your benefits, I’m also temporarily removing the minimum income floor in Universal Credit.
“And I’m relaxing the requirement for anyone to physically attend a job centre; everything can be done by phone or online.”
In normal circumstances, missing face-to-face meetings could lead to benefits being reduced.
Dame Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “The Chancellor’s decision to extend statutory sick pay to those self-isolating will be a relief to some workers.
“But the self-employed and people in the 1.5 million jobs that don’t qualify for sick pay are still at risk of falling through the gaps if they become unwell.
“We’re pleased to see the waiting period for contributory employment and support allowance has been removed, but we know those who need to apply for Universal Credit will still face a lengthy wait for a full payment and could be pushed into debt as a result.
“This unprecedented situation has exposed the long-standing flaws and inconsistencies in our sick pay and benefits systems.
“While today’s measures are encouraging, the Government needs to take a longer term view and build on them to ensure our social safety net is fit for purpose.”
Councillor John Fuller, chairman of the District Councils’ Network, said they were “delighted” to see the hardship fund announced.
He said: “To make this investment really count it will be important for it to be channelled directly to district councils, and with full flexibilities and no ring fences so that we can rapidly respond to the range of issues this will throw up across our communities.
“There will be challenging weeks ahead for communities across the country.
“As ever, councils stand ready to deliver the vital services for families and businesses.”
Chief executive at the Trussell Trust Emma Revie said: “We welcome the extra financial support announced, particularly the £500 million hardship fund for local councils, which can play a key role in anchoring us all from poverty.
“But as coronavirus unfolds, more people could need this safety net than ever before – especially those who aren’t eligible for sick pay or have unstable jobs.
“For many of these people the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment could cause real hardship, despite measures announced in today’s Budget.”