I WOULD like to shine a light on something which hasn’t so far been given due attention in all the discourse around the coronavirus: the plight of people in receipt of out-of-work benefits.

As things stand at the moment and amidst all that’s happening as a result of the coronavirus, it’s still possible for unemployed people to be sanctioned for not attending a jobcentre appointment.

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey, recently stated that any jobseeker affected by the coronavirus and wishing to notify the jobcentre of their inability to attend an appointment will be expected to do so “in good time” if they are to avoid their benefit being stopped or reduced for the period of a sanction.

This could prove especially difficult, for example, for people who become unwell the evening before their appointment or who first experience possible virus symptoms on the morning of their appointment – messages may not reach the relevant person “in good time” – so there would appear to be a significant risk of their Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit being reduced or stopped in such instances.

A nightmare situation at any time, but far more so if you have the coronavirus.

In terms of long-term sick and disabled people who rely on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), the main out-of-work incapacity benefit, or its Universal Credit equivalent: Therese Coffey also recently announced that face-to-face “fitness-for-work” assessments and reassessments are being suspended for a period of three months from March 17 to protect people from the coronavirus.

Crucially, assessments/reassessments are still to take place – by telephone or paper-based assessments (ie purely based on the forms completed by claimants).

The same applies regarding face-to-face assessments/reassessments for Personal Independence Payment (PIP, formerly Disability Living Allowance), the benefit for people who have additional care and/or mobility needs due to disabilities or long-term health conditions.

THE mental health charity Mind has called for reassessments to be suspended altogether, to remove the risk of long-term sick and disabled people having their payments abruptly and unfairly stopped or reduced at this time.

Around 75% of appeals against decisions on both benefits are successful, often following a lengthy and highly stressful process, and there are already thousands of people currently stuck in the nightmare of such an appeals process.

Vicki Nash, Mind’s head of policy and campaigns, stated: “It’s vital that disabled people and people with long-term conditions are reassured that they can depend on a stable income”.

This is true at any time, but especially in light of the coronavirus.

In addition, ESA and PIP assessments are carried out by doctors, nurses, paramedics, etc.

If all reassessments were suspended for several months, couldn’t these health professionals be redeployed in the NHS, which, after all, needs all the help it can get?

It’s UK taxpayers who pay the salaries of these professionals in any case, via the outsourcing of benefits assessments to the big private companies who currently employ them.

So why not put their skills and experience to far more productive, far more necessary use?

People of working age on out-of-work benefits having been hammered the last 10 years; successive UK governments since 2010 have not only shrunk the state, they have carried out a wholesale assault on the social protection of unemployed, sick and disabled people, and of the children of those among them who are parents.

The aforementioned ESA and PIP assessment regimes, the benefit cap, the two-child cap/rape clause, the Bedroom Tax, the long-term harm caused by the four-year benefit freeze affecting tens of millions of people including children, etc etc – all these things continue and render those affected by them even more vulnerable at a time like this.

I would urge Ian Blackford, all of our SNP MPs and the Scottish Government to speak out on behalf of those of us in the above groups and to appeal to the UK Government to make changes that will afford us better social protection during these most uncertain of times.

Mo Maclean