Disability and Carer Benefits Expert Advisory Group - COVID-19 advice: letter to Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People

Letter from the Disability and Carers Benefits Expert Advisory Group to Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People.

To: Shirley-Anne Somerville, Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People

By e-mail

26 June 2020

Dear Shirley-Anne,


These are unprecedented times. COVID-19 has had far-reaching impacts in Scotland and across the world. However, disabled people and their carers are being especially affected. For this reason, we felt it necessary to set out what some of these impacts are and suggest ways we believe the Scottish Government can help disabled people and carers through this difficult time.

We welcome the commitment by the Scottish Government to ensure safe and secure delivery of the newly-devolved benefits, and to improve the claiming process for all recipients. Thank you for your letter of 1 April 2020 which sets out the impacts the outbreak will have on benefit delivery. We know this is a challenging time for everyone, including the Scottish Government and its agencies, and understand that delivery cannot go ahead as originally intended.

We understand that our advice may incur risks, implications and challenges for the Scottish Government. These will be made explicit in the current advice note and we aim, where possible, to signpost a proposed solution.

Clearly, information and the current policy landscape may quickly change in ways that cannot be foreseen at this time, so the advice we give now is with the caveat that this too may change in light of developments. As always, but especially in the uncertain times we currently face, we would welcome returning to these issues in the future.

We set out below some of the impacts of COVID-19 we identified that especially affect disabled people and their carers, as well as some recommendations for how those impacts might be mitigated by using the social security powers and other levers available to the Scottish Government.


We feel that any advice we provide must be given within the wider context of how disabled people and carers are being affected by COVID-19. To inform this context, members were asked to contribute their knowledge and experience of how COVID-19 is affecting the people they work with via a questionnaire which is reproduced along with completed returns in Annex A. Some of these responses were based on wide-ranging surveys conducted by the organisations our members are affiliated with. Others were based on members’ individual and organisational knowledge and experience of working with disabled people and carers. More detail of sources of information can be found in Annex B. Please note that these questionnaires were returned by members in mid-April, so the impacts discussed reflect things as they were at that time. However, we believe the information is still relevant to this discussion and our resulting recommendations. 

The major impacts identified are as follows:

Reduction in access to benefits

Members found people are experiencing a considerable increase in delays and general difficulty accessing advice and information regarding potential benefit eligibility. They also found significant delays in the administrative activities necessary to take applications, determine eligibility and actually pay out benefit awards. These unacceptable delays have caused disabled people and carers to go without at a time when they are especially vulnerable.

When people are trying to make new claims for benefits, members have heard of callers waiting indefinitely on the line (having not been told how long they can expect to wait) and also being inexplicably cut off. Problems applying for benefits are further evidenced by the fact that the DWP is reporting that there were only 25,000 new PIP applications in April 2020, less than three-fifths (58%) of the number received in the same period a year earlier and the lowest number since December 2013.

Members report delays for Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Disability Living Allowance (DLA) for children and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments, particularly where a new claim was being made but also when the disabled person was seeking an increase in the level of award. One organisation reported that several clients had applied for PIP earlier this year, but have not heard anything. Members are also hearing of delays in, or difficulty being able to claim Carer’s Allowance or report changes in circumstances.

Moreover, some members explained that the changes meant to make things easier for claimants during the outbreak have caused confusion, meaning people do not know whether or not they should apply. For instance, there is confusion in understanding the difference between self-isolating because the claimant or someone in their household has COVID-19 and shielding because they have a significant underlying health condition. This then has an effect on understanding benefit entitlement for the two different situations. This issue is compounded by the decrease in support available to claimants, which we discuss further below.

We have also heard that the redeployment of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff is affecting awards. For example, the team that processes the severe disability premium had assured some claimants who had been permitted to claim Universal Credit (UC) in error that they would be returned to legacy benefits. Now that staff have been redeployed, those claimants remain worse off on UC with no certainty as to whether or when their situations will be resolved. Similarly, DWP have delayed the review of PIP awards that were happening as part of the Department’s response to changes in the law. These reviews are due to restart in July 2020 but this may be further delayed. These issues are especially important to disabled people and carers and delays mean they are going without increased awards at a time when they are urgently needed.

We understand that many of these problems are due to the agencies delivering them being overwhelmed with new UC applications and reduced and redeployed staff of their own. We also understand that many of these issues are specific to agencies for which the Scottish Government is not responsible nor has direct power to improve. However, Scottish services are also highlighted. The Scottish Welfare Fund has been identified as not responding effectively to the needs of claimants because, even with the welcome additional funding provided by Scottish Government, Local Authorities are also stretched and some are having difficulty administering payments efficiently.

Reduction in access to support services

As discussed above, issues accessing benefit entitlements are compounded by the fact that the services that would usually support claimants to overcome these issues are similarly overwhelmed, understaffed or difficult to access for other reasons, including social distancing policies. 

Claimants who need support to complete their benefit application forms are disadvantaged, as advice services are not able to provide the same level of face-to-face advice. Retrieving medical evidence to support benefit applications, often a cumbersome task at the best of times, is also problematic. A lack of medical evidence to corroborate the information provided in the form may prejudice the outcome of the work capability assessment.

It is not just advice services that are facing these issues. Many disabled people already reliant on supermarket deliveries – and some who have turned to foodbanks previously - tell us they are left short of food, as demand has overwhelmed these services.

General medical care is also stretched, leaving disabled people less able to access the regular care they require. Members report disabled people are feeling anxiety about getting access to equal treatment from health services in the event of contracting the coronavirus. Early in the lockdown there were accounts of disabled and older people being asked if they wished not to take up places in hospital, or not to be resuscitated if they did. PPE was not readily available to significant numbers of people involved in supporting disabled and older people, including staff in care homes, informal carers, and paid personal assistants. While we understand some of these issues have improved, they caused serious anxiety and arguably breached the human rights of those affected.

Vital supports have been removed from many who live with long term mental health conditions due to the outbreak. Group members report that the people they work with are saying mental health teams are uncontactable, leaving disabled people extremely vulnerable at this challenging and stressful time.

Moreover, Social Care, which was strained even before the outbreak, has had to withdraw services. One member advised at the end of April that due to COVID-19, vital social care supports were withdrawn from 1,884 people in Glasgow since 19 March – with some given no notice at all, and no idea when or if their care would be reinstated. There have been similar reductions in care all across Scotland, though the amount of care withdrawn has varied wildly in different parts of the country, with Glasgow and Inverclyde being particularly affected. Many disabled people have been left reliant on neighbours, other vulnerable relatives, or simply with no-one to meet intimate personal care needs like meals, medications, support to shower or use the toilet.

This has contributed to carers reporting that they are providing an average 10 hours per week extra caring – which for some means completely 24/7. Evidence from carers centres and a member organisation’s survey suggests parent carers are facing an even more difficult time.

Members also report there have been additional impacts for carers with a language barrier. These carers are unable to assist with schoolwork and their children do not have access to their usual care supports including school language assistants. These carers do not have access to their usual face to face support and advice including assistance with benefits letters and are especially vulnerable to fraud because they are less able to recognise financial scams, losing hundreds of pounds in some cases.

Despite a huge mobilisation of local voluntary sector responses, in one member survey three quarters (76%) of disabled people reported they were not aware of any of these local support services or were unable to access them.

At least part of this can be attributed to support services moving online. Technology to access online communications, services and information has assumed an increasingly important role in many people’s lives during the lockdown. However, significant numbers of disabled people are digitally excluded and have neither the equipment required, nor the ability to use it. A member survey found only 37% of disabled people surveyed reported having home broadband or IT equipment

Increased costs and reduced incomes

The outbreak will likely result in increased levels of poverty across Scotland. While the welcome increase in the standard rate of Universal Credit/Working Tax Credit will help many, we believe these will be less beneficial for carers and disabled people who were already more likely to be living in poverty. They are especially exposed to the risk of reduced earnings and increased costs.

The amount of benefits disabled people and carers are receiving will likely not be enough to cover the increased costs they are facing through being confined to their home. Extra costs apply to a range of areas including food and heating. For some carers, this includes the cost of having to take unpaid leave from work due to caring for someone with underlying health conditions or who is older and/or because health services have reduced. This can be especially problematic for carers who are caring for someone who is not eligible for disability benefits (this includes the many that have lost entitlement in the move from DLA to PIP or in subsequent reviews) as they are unable to receive Carer’s Allowance.

One member survey of carers conducted across the UK found that 81% said they were spending more – the biggest reason for an increase was spending more on food. The same study found that 17% of carers reported either having lost or given up their job or being unable to work because of the social distancing rules.

Similarly, a recent member survey of disabled people carried out in Glasgow found 40% of disabled people spoken to were worried about food, medication or money.

Increased isolation, loneliness, and other mental health issues

Disabled people and carers were already at higher risk of poor mental health before the outbreak. Social distancing, shielding and other responses to COVID-19 are exacerbating these issues.

One member survey found that isolation, already twice as high amongst disabled people, is now even more of a concern with over seven in ten (72%) disabled people surveyed worrying about becoming acutely isolated. As described above, digital exclusion is a significant factor. Also, many rely on others for support with day to day tasks and looking after themselves.

Carers are being similarly affected. A member’s survey of carers across the UK found that one in three (33%) carers felt they were unable ‘to look after their own health and wellbeing’, and four in ten (44%) stated that they were ‘lonely and cut off from people’. It also found that almost nine in ten (87%) carers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I am worried about what will happen to the people I care for if I have to self-isolate or become ill”.

Lack of reasonable adjustments

The final impact we want to highlight is the discrimination disabled people and carers face as a result of reasonable adjustments not being made to the enforcement of the social distancing rules.

Members report that the lack of adjustments made by businesses, for example not providing seating in queues to get into shops and being refused the ability to shop with a personal assistant, has forced some disabled people to resort things they would not typically have to do, like go to food banks.

Also, many disabled people cannot easily replace essential household appliances which break down, like fridges and washing machines because of social distancing preventing installation and repair.

Scottish Government response

Having set out the context of our advice, we move to our impressions of the Scottish Government’s response so far as it relates to social security for disabled people and carers, and recommendations for what more should be done.

First, we welcome the decision to have the Scottish Child Payment (SCP) remain a top priority for the Government as explained in your letter of 01 April 2020 discussed above. Child poverty and disability are closely linked, and SCP will undoubtedly help many families that include disabled people and their carers.

We also believe the decision to increase the June 2020 payment of Carer’s Allowance Supplement (CAS) was an excellent one. An extra £230.10 will make a significant positive impact on carers who are eligible to receive it.

The increase to the Scottish Welfare Fund is also welcome, as disabled people and carers are more likely to fall into crisis in this uncertain time as highlighted above.

More to be done

However, we do believe there is more that can and should be done to support disabled people and carers in this challenging time.

As above, the increase to CAS is welcome but because CAS is only available to people who are in receipt of Carer’s Allowance, there are many people with significant caring responsibilities that will not be eligible for this increased support. This includes people who do not receive Carer’s Allowance due to the overlapping benefit rules because they receive state retirement pensions, some bereavement benefits, Maternity Allowance, or contributory unemployment benefits. As we said in our advice on the proposed Carer’s Additional Child Payment, this is especially troubling considering many people in these groups will already be experiencing a particularly difficult time, for example kinship carers who have reached pension age, people who are recently unemployed, people who have recently lost a partner, and pregnant women. We believe more support should be offered to people who fall into this category.

Recommendation 1

The increased payment of CAS is welcome, but more must be done to provide financial support to carers who are not eligible for CAS due to the overlapping benefit rules. 

This brings us to a wider point about the use of equalities analysis in the development of social security policy. The section of the equalities impact assessment for the Coronavirus (Scotland) (no. 2) Act 2020 setting out the impacts of the Coronavirus Carer’s Allowance Supplement (CCAS) acknowledges that those who are over pension age and receiving a state pension will not be entitled to this extra support, but offers no discussion or consideration of why this should be acceptable. We are concerned that not enough consideration was given to this fact, and as in previous advice, we wish to highlight that we believe more must be done to ensure consistent robust equalities assessments are taking place when devising social security policy. We recognise that policies aimed at addressing the impacts of COVID-19 are reactive and must be developed quickly. However, robust equalities impact analysis must not be sacrificed in the name of speed, especially since additional support for these groups under financial strain is needed urgently. 

Disabled people too must be considered when conducting equalities analysis of responses to COVID-19. The fact that the UK Government has chosen to increase the value of Universal Credit but not Income Support or Employment and Support Allowance - benefits disabled people and carers are more likely to receive - without discussing this impact highlights that this may not be given proper weight (Explanatory Memorandum to the Social Security (Coronavirus) (Further Measures) Regulations 2020, see also Letter to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, from SSAC 27 May 2020 which recommends, “the Government finds a way to ensure that this group of claimants [in receipt of JSA or ESA], that includes some of the least well off, are brought up to the same level as those in receipt of Universal Credit as soon as it is possible to do so.”).

Recommendation 2

Consistent robust equalities impacts analysis must be carried out when developing social security policy responses to COVID-19.

We question why extra support has been offered to the carers of disabled people but not to disabled people themselves. Carer’s Allowance has had its eligibility requirements relaxed and an increase in value as a response to COVID-19 – changes we see as incredibly helpful. We believe similar proposals should be considered regarding disability benefits.

There are many disabled people who do not have the support of either paid or unpaid carers. While increases to support for carers may also help the people they care for, disabled people without this support are arguably most in need, especially considering the impacts we discuss above.

We understand that disability benefits are still being administered by the DWP, but they are now under the executive competence of the Scottish Government. This means the Government could explore options like urgently and temporarily increasing the value of disability benefits for Scottish claimants. The Carer’s Allowance Supplement, which acts to increase the value of Carer’s Allowance, could serve as a model for such an approach. Alternatively, the Government could focus on using its powers to reduce the costs of disabled people through, for example, creating further exemptions or reductions to Council Tax. It could also look to drive higher take-up of existing discretionary benefits, like Discretionary Housing Payments, among disabled people.

Recommendation 3

The Scottish Government should explore how it can support disabled people to cope with the financial impacts of COVID-19. To do this, it should consider how it can use its social security and other available powers to either increase the incomes of disabled people or reduce their costs.

Scottish Government intervention is especially necessary considering that many of the changes the UK Government has made, like the increase to the standard rate of Universal Credit discussed above, will not directly increase the incomes of many disabled people.

Furthermore, though we understand that delivery will be delayed due to the impacts of COVID-19, considerable changes to the administration of disability benefits in Scotland in the near future were planned which will, we believe, have a significantly positive impact on the well-being of disabled people. We are keen to understand how, for example, assessments are being conducted from April 2021 when DWP contractors were due to stop conducting them for Scottish clients. While the administration of disability benefits currently sits with the DWP, we suggest the Scottish Government might press the UK Government to make changes to how disability benefits are administered while the impacts of COVID-19 persist.

Recommendation 4

The Scottish Government should consider how the DWP might be persuaded to make changes to the administration of disability benefits where this would improve access.


We understand that the demand on the Scottish Government and its agencies, especially with regards to social security, is intense as the result of COVID-19. We also understand that the Scottish Government and its agencies are working with diminished capacity as they endeavour to address this demand.

However, as we describe above, disabled people and carers are among those most strongly affected by the impacts of COVID-19. The Scottish Government needs to do everything it can to implement an equally strong response.

The COVID-19 outbreak will generate risks and damaging consequences which will be felt by many Scots for years to come. Disabled people and carers are especially vulnerable to these impacts and we believe more must be done now to reduce the short and long term effects on these groups. 


Please see below our key recommendations.

Recommendation 1: The increased payment of CAS is welcome, however, more must be done to provide financial support to carers who are not eligible for CAS due to the overlapping benefit rules.

Recommendation 2: Consistent robust equalities impacts analysis must be carried out when developing social security policy responses to COVID-19.

Recommendation 3: The Scottish Government should explore how it can support disabled people to cope with the financial impacts of COVID-19. To do this, it should consider how it can use its social security and other available powers to either increase the incomes of disabled people or reduce their costs. 

Recommendation 4: The Scottish Government should consider how the DWP might be persuaded to make changes to the administration of disability benefits where this would improve access.

I hope this is helpful. I look forward to your response and we would be pleased to discuss these points further with officials.

With best wishes,

Dr. Jim McCormick


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