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Many in shielded group facing “catch-22” as incomes plummet

28 May 2020

New research from Citizens Advice shows that four in ten (41%) of those in the shielded group have lost at least 20% of their income since the coronavirus outbreak began. More than a quarter (27%) have lost 60% of their income or more.

The charity has supported thousands of workers with underlying health conditions, and their family members, who have been denied access to the furlough scheme. Others were initially furloughed but have since been asked to return to frontline roles as shop workers and delivery drivers. 

Worryingly, as many as 1 in 10 (12%) in the shielded group are working outside of the home despite this potentially putting their health at risk. 

The charity is warning that people face a “catch-22” due to a flaw in government guidance which advises 2.5 million people who are “extremely clinically vulnerable” to shield at home until at least the end of June, but does not oblige employers to furlough them.

Analysis of around 2,000 of all employment cases Citizens Advice has seen since 14 April showed over 70% of those who are shielding or are at higher risk from coronavirus - such as those who are pregnant or have diabetes - were not furloughed.

Frontline staff at Citizens Advice say those in the shielded group who are choosing to work outside the home are often doing so because they are fearful they will lose their jobs if they try to negotiate with their employer.

Cases reported by the charity’s advisers include people who have undergone organ transplants or who have serious lung conditions but have been asked to return to work. 

With the Chancellor due to set out further details of the Job Retention Scheme, the charity is calling for the most vulnerable workers, including those in the shielded group, or who share a household with someone in the shielded group, to have a right to be furloughed for as long as their work would require them to breach public health advice. 

“The shielded are still going to work because they’re worried their boss will let them go if they speak up”

Debbie Nolan, Health Programme Lead at Citizens Advice Liverpool, coordinates calls with people in the shielded group to check on their wellbeing. She said:

“We’ve seen a surge in concerns about health and safety over the past two weeks as people with serious medical conditions, and those they live with, are asked to return to work.

“What’s most worrying is that some people go quiet when you ask them how shielding is going. At that point you start to realise they’re not shielding at all. The shielded are still going to work because they’re worried their boss will let them go if they speak up.

“These stories are absolutely heartbreaking. Many of us take for granted that we can talk to our employer when we have concerns, but not everyone is so lucky. That’s where our staff and volunteers step in.”

Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:

“The government’s extraordinary interventions have protected millions of jobs and incomes, but some of the most vulnerable have still fallen through the safety net.

“We’re already seeing worrying cases of people being caught in a catch-22 where they have been denied furlough and asked to work in direct contradiction of public health advice. We fear the situation could worsen as more workplaces reopen.

“Unless people who are shielding have a right to be furloughed while their health is at risk, some will continue to face an impossible choice: paying the bills or protecting their health.”

‘I’ve basically been asked to choose between my daughter’s health or keeping food on the table’:

Mum-of-two Sarah* has been told her three-year-old daughter must shield due to her asthma and allergies. She works at a preschool, which is due to reopen on 1 June. She has been told she will have to take unpaid leave if she does not return on this date. 

She said: “I've basically been told to choose between my daughter's health or keeping food on the table. It’s stressful, I suffer with anxiety and depression and I used to have panic attacks quite frequently. I can’t even concentrate, I can't sleep, I can hardly eat.”

Care home worker Faye*, was told to shield as she has blood cancer. She is currently furloughed on health grounds and expected back at work on 19 June, but her employer says the situation is constantly changing. She said:

“I watch the daily broadcast every single night waiting for something, but I've heard nothing about people with illnesses that work. I don't want to go back after being home for 12 weeks to then catch the virus.

“It’s so frustrating. I really don't know which way to turn, do I go back to work and take the chance? Or is someone going to say that if you work in a care home you need to stay home a bit longer?”

Additional research from Citizens Advice

Analysis of 1,946 employment cases Citizens Advice has seen since 14 April 2020 showed:

  • Over 70% of those who are shielding or are at higher risk from coronavirus, such as those who are pregnant or have diabetes, were not furloughed.

  • This compares to 56% of workers overall who have not been furloughed despite being eligible. 

Citizens Advice did an in-depth analysis of cases from the week following the Prime Minister’s announcement that those who could should now return to work. A randomised sample of 10% of the 3,800 cases Citizens Advice saw between 11-15 May found:

  • Over half (56%) of people not currently working expressed concerns that their place of work was not safe.

  • Just over 1 in 5 clients (21%) who are currently off work have been told they may be made redundant or face a change in their employment conditions when they return.

The charity has given one-to-one employment advice to people on 118,000 issues since lockdown, a 95% increase on the same period last year. 

Employers are currently allowed to furlough people for any reason arising from the coronavirus pandemic, including to protect employees' health.

Citizens Advice warns that unless the Chancellor shores up protections for this group as he gives further details on the next stage of the furlough scheme, they could also be at greater risk of redundancy. 

Notes to editors

  1. Research conducted by Opinium Research. Field dates: 13th-19th- May 2020. Sample size 2,009 UK adults, weighted to be nationally representative.

  2. Polling showed that 41% of people in the shielded group had seen their income reduced by 20% or more. This could include people who have been furloughed. 27% of people in the shielded group had lost more than 60% of their income. This compares to 22% of people who are in the non-vulnerable group who have lost 20% of their income or more and 9% who have lost 60% of their income or more.

  3. See government guidance for the definition of the shielded group. For the definition of the at risk group see the clinically vulnerable section.

  4. People can find frequently updated advice on a range of issues related to the Coronavirus outbreak at 

  5. The availability of face-to-face services will be affected during the outbreak. If people need to speak to someone for advice, they should check our website for the status of their nearest Citizens Advice. 

  6. Citizens Advice will continue to offer advice over the telephone on its Adviceline - 03444 111 444 - as well as online chat with advisers. Anyone seeking to make a new claim for Universal Credit should call the Universal Credit Help to Claim line on 0800 1448444

  7. Citizens Advice is made up of the national charity Citizens Advice; the network of independent local Citizens Advice charities across England and Wales; the Citizens Advice consumer service; and the Witness Service.

  8. Our network of charities offers impartial advice online, over the phone, and in person, for free.

  9. We helped 2.7 million people face to face, over the phone, by email and webchat in 2018-19. And we had 29 million visits to our website. For full service statistics see our monthly publication Advice trends.

  10. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 2,600 service outlets across England and Wales.

  11. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 0808 223 1133 or  0808 223 1144 for Welsh language speakers.