How the government can ensure people can access benefits during the coronavirus outbreak
27 March 2020
Over the past two weeks, we have seen the government kick into action to help tackle the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak. They have already extended sick pay to help people who are unwell or need to self-isolate, set up a new scheme to help employers keep paying workers who cannot do their jobs as a result of the pandemic, and announced new support for self-employed people whose work has dried up in the last few weeks.
These have been unprecedented steps to protect people and their incomes through this crisis.
Steps have also been taken to ensure people who rely on social security are kept safe. Some benefits have been increased, reviews and reassessments have been paused, and face-to-face assessments have been suspended. Instead, people are being directed to make and manage claims by filling in forms and through telephone assessments.
Gaps in the safety net
However, many people experiencing mental health problems may struggle to manage the new processes. Money and Mental Health research shows that nine in ten benefit claimants with experience of mental health problems find it difficult to provide information over the phone. The same proportion of people claiming Personal Independence Payment (PIP) with mental health problems struggle to complete paper application forms.
For many people, these challenges are even more acute in the current climate, given the anxiety and stress that the coronavirus outbreak is causing. Over the past few weeks, my concentration has been all over the place. Even when I have urgent, important work to do, focusing is proving a challenge, with intrusive, anxious thoughts rising to the surface. At least I know it’s not just me: new polling by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that six in ten adults in the UK said they had felt anxious or worried because of coronavirus.
In this situation, filling out lengthy paper forms, or hanging on the telephone listening to endless hold music can prove simply impossible. And with tight deadlines to complete steps in benefits application processes, there’s a risk people experiencing mental health problems which make it harder to jump through the necessary hoops will simply miss out.
With Jobcentres closed, people shut off from their family and friends, and phonelines at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) jammed with people trying to get through, we are worried that many people may find themselves unable to get the help they need to receive the benefits they’re entitled to. At Money and Mental Health, we are already hearing from members of our Research Community who are struggling, and scared their payments will stop.
“I’m terrified, it’s scaring me and my anxiety and paranoia has gone through the roof. I’m worried because I have PIP forms to send back and CAB [Citizens Advice Bureau] is closed for appointments due to COVID so I can’t get help.”
We’re asking the government to help
So this week, we have joined with other mental health charities and campaigners including Mind, Rethink Mental Illness and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to write to the DWP, asking it to make some small changes to ensure people experiencing mental health problems don’t miss out on benefits at this critical time. This includes asking the government to make sure that people will continue to receive payments while they navigate appeals and claims processes, and extending deadlines for returning forms or making phone calls, so that people who are struggling to concentrate or to use the telephone as the result of a mental health problem don’t fall out of the system altogether.
We know the DWP is already working hard to get support to as many people as possible, and that demands on the system have grown dramatically in the past few weeks. But it’s vital that the needs of people living with mental health problems aren’t forgotten. By taking some simple steps now, the government can help people with mental health problems access the support they need, and avoid falling into a spiral of financial difficulties and worsening health.