Officials are said to have urged the government to promote furlough as a way of getting self-isolation cash (stock photo) (Image: AFP via Getty Images)
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The government’s own officials accused it of hiding a method for self-isolating Brits to get cash, bombshell leaked e-mails claim today.
Civil servants believed staff who are forced to self-isolate could switch temporarily onto the furlough scheme – getting up to 80% of their usual pay.
But the Treasury did not want this to happen, because furlough was “not designed” to cover people who were self-isolating due to Covid-19.
So rather than advertising this option, the government is accused of suppressing it.
Official guidance publicly discouraged self-isolating people from claiming furlough, saying: “The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme is not intended for short term absences from work due to sickness.
“Short term illness or self-isolation should not be a consideration when deciding if you’ll be furloughed.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his team are accused of blocking Brits from getting clear information
(Image: Simon Walker HM Treasury)
Leaked e-mails from January and February – obtained by the Politico website – show a senior official complaining about the issue.
In one of the e-mails, the senior official wrote: “Furlough can be used to cover self-isolation.
“But [the Treasury] are reluctant to say this explicitly in guidance because it could lead to employees being furloughed who do not need to be.
“This is a live issue being worked through.”
The official also complained £500 self-isolation payments, which are only available to some workers, “are too low to incentivise employees to take tests due to risk of loss of income”.
It comes after Politico obtained another leaked memo – downplayed as out-of-date by No10 – which raised concerns about the sick pay system.
The memo said there are “barriers” and “disincentives” to isolating in economic costs, and in the long term people need better sick pay.
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Statutory sick pay is worth just £96.35 a week and is unavailable to part-time workers on low hours.
Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson said: “These revelations are shocking.
“The government were advised time and time again how crucial a proper self-isolation system is for curbing the spread of infection, and protecting people’s lives and livelihoods.
“It is shameful and reckless that the Chancellor ignored professional advice and put countless people and workplaces at unnecessary risk when he had the opportunity to help.”
Labour's Bridget Phillipson said: “These revelations are shocking"
A Whitehall source told Politico: “The penny-pinching Treasury refusing to make it clear in their guidance that employers could furlough self-isolating staff had clear public health consequences.
“It resulted in more people with COVID symptoms going into work due to the very low sick leave payment.
“This led to greater transmission of the virus at the beginning of the year when hospitals were slammed and the average ambulance waiting time was over two hours.”
Furlough rules allow employers to put workers on “flexible furlough” for as little as one week.
It appears this could technically enable a firm to take a worker who happens to be self-isolating, and put them on the furlough scheme for a short time.
But a Treasury source told the Mirror: “Furlough was designed to protect jobs and ensure people who would have otherwise lost their jobs had incomes.
“It was not designed to support people self isolating.
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“We would have had no mechanism to check who was furloughed for self isolation reasons and the scheme would have been open to abuse.”
Treasury minister Jesse Norman insisted the government took the issue of self-isolation payments “extremely seriously”.
“Literally only in the last few days I’ve been taking through parliament a piece of legislation designed to exempt people in that situation from national insurance contributions," he told LBC.
He told Sky News: “That's why we put in place the £500 amount, and that £500 amount can be claimed over and above other benefits that people are receiving as a result of the furlough schemes or otherwise. So that's how to do it.
“More widely, of course you would expect the Treasury to be making certain that the taxpayers money was properly spent in the right way, and as designed and agreed across government.
“I know nothing about this document but that in general is a sensible principle for us to operate in.
“And it's not as though the purse strings have been held very tight – we spent £400bn over the last 15 months or so and in the months to come on the response to the pandemic.
“That's a level of public support that's completely without precedent in our modern history."
A Treasury spokeswoman said: “We have an extensive support package in place for those self-isolating due to coronavirus including £500 one off payments for those on low incomes.
“Our furlough scheme has saved millions of jobs, helping families who otherwise would have been out of work – and we have spent £65 billion pounds on this to date. In working up the detail of the scheme we had to balance the need to get help out to people quickly while minimising the risk of fraud and protecting taxpayers’ money from abuse.
“Our guidance on furlough has always been clear that employees can be furloughed according to business need and that the scheme can be used for individuals who are clinically extremely vulnerable or at high risk of severe illness from coronavirus.”