Public inquiry must provide answers to concerns raised by ExcludedUK - Greg Wright

During times of crisis, the nation’s thoughts and actions must always focus on the most vulnerable.

Millions of people stayed at home and halted their normal working routines in order to protect the NHS during the height of the pandemic
Millions of people stayed at home and halted their normal working routines in order to protect the NHS during the height of the pandemic

That’s why millions of people stayed at home and halted their normal working routines in order to protect the NHS and save lives during the darkest days of the pandemic.

In return for making these sacrifices – which resulted in some people losing all their income overnight – the state must ensure law-abiding taxpayers do not suffer a collapse in their own financial and mental health.

There is no doubt that the Treasury has created one of the largest and most comprehensive Covid-19 support packages in the world, which has protected millions of jobs and the incomes of millions more.

However, the campaigning group ExcludedUK estimates that three million people have fallen between the cracks and received no meaningful support during the pandemic. Critics claim that the Government has stubbornly refused to seriously consider policy suggestions which might have eased their plight.

A new briefing paper from the Centre Think Tank claims there were multiple chances for the Government to adopt a solution to include more people in its income support schemes.

During the Covid-19 pandemic the Government created two income support schemes, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) or the furlough scheme which supported employees, and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS).

While these included large numbers of people, there were groups who were unable to access them through no fault of their own, the think tank report states. In particular, it highlights the problems faced by people who were refused furlough.

The case studies quoted in the report include a woman who was employed by a landscaping company as an office manager before the pandemic.

“I loved working there,’’ she recalled. “It wasn’t just a job to me. As I am an asthmatic I chose to work from home when the first lockdown came in... Despite these lockdown restrictions staff were not discouraged from coming into the office.”

Her troubles began when one staff member in a high-risk group was allowed to continue going into work, despite the clear health risk, according to the woman.

The woman recalled: “When I suggested this was wrong he (her boss) got her to write a letter to say it was her own choice.

“I was phoned to tell me they were terminating my employment. I was shocked. I asked my manager if he would consider furloughing me and then terminating my employment in three months but he said it was a breach of legislation... At the time a friend who works there said that, after my response, he told staff not to speak to me or tell me what was going on. I just wanted to be treated fairly and decently.”

A man quoted in the report, who works in a museum, said he and his colleagues were refused furlough, despite the company’s revenue only being reduced by a small amount.

He added: “Despite the museum’s agency staff working at the museum all year, often working as many hours as its full-time employees.., any staff employed by my agency... will receive nothing during the current Government lockdown. I believe the treatment of the workers... to be absolutely unacceptable.”

The think tank report found evidence that some people who were denied furlough were being expected to work in unsafe conditions in order to support their families.

The report said there had been tragic reports of people dying by suicide after being excluded from support and others being exposed to Covid-19 because of unsafe working conditions.

It concludes that the health and financial problems faced by those unable to access the support schemes, and the Government’s subsequent rejection of most of the alternative proposals put forward, underline the need for a public inquiry.

Responding to the report, a Treasury spokesperson said: "Throughout this crisis our priority has been to protect lives and livelihoods. Our schemes have supported millions of jobs and the incomes of millions more.

“While we acknowledge it has not been possible to support everyone in the way they might want our schemes were designed to target support at those who need it most, while protecting public money against error, fraud and abuse.”

If the Government feels confident that it has made the right decisions, it will welcome a formal investigation. Valuable lessons can be learned which could shape a more effective response to future crises, which appear out of clear, blue skies.

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