Coronavirus benefit: Do what it says on the tin

Blog posts

18 Mar 2020

During the covid-19 crisis, we will be opening up our blogs to guest contributors. These blogs are intended to broaden the debate and discussion on how public policy, employers and civil society can respond.  Needless to say, the views will be those of the authors themselves rather than of IES.  If you’d like to contribute a blog, then please email IES Senior Communications Officer: Steve O'Rourke

About the author: Bill Wells worked in DWP, BIS, and its labour market predecessors, for over 35 years. As a labour market economist he has a national and international reputation. During this time he was one of the main architects of Jobseeker’s Allowance and the New Deal for Young people. In addition, he had responsibility for devising the target structure for Jobcentre Plus and also determining the levels at which the targets should be set.  


The Coronavirus cannot read or understand the rules and regulations of the UK Tax and Benefit System. Yet even though it cannot read or understand them the virus has exposed that the design and delivery of the rules is not fit for purpose.

Like Bismarck’s Schleswig-Holstein question, only three people understand them. It is, therefore, a mug’s game trying to rearrange them in a way that will deliver the right money to the right person at the right time. So, don’t try. Keep It Simple Stupid. Set up a temporary Coronavirus benefit on Ronseal principles that can be delivered easily through existing processes.

The objective of the benefit is to get money to who are either-self isolated – whether in work or not – or laid off from work. The design and delivery should aim to reward the right thing – that the person remains in isolation and that the organisation delivering the money to the person delivers it on time.

And it should be optimistic and forward-looking. Design it in such a way that we keep in touch. In order to know the person is healthy or cared for. The ambition should be to minimise the time in isolation and re-integrate them into society and/or the world of work as soon as possible.

Finally, stressing that it is a time-limited temporary benefit just for the duration of the crisis will also get people thinking about the future post-crisis.


Employees: Key to the success of this benefit is getting the money to people as soon as possible, using existing processes. Employers pay money to employees, so they should be the delivery mechanism for all employees. A flat rate weekly benefit (of say £100 pw to make it distinctive) must then be paid by the end of each week.

And in order to promote the rights and responsibility agenda, the firm will only get the money back from the state if they can prove they have paid the right money on time. Similarly, there should be customer service targets on the state for these repayments – so that the state has targets to ensure the firm gets its money back if it does the right thing.

Non-employees: The contractual arrangements of non-employees (self-employed etc) complicate things. So, treat all non-employees the same – with the state delivering the money to all of them.

And to ensure the money is paid on time, restore the Citizen Charter customer service targets that used to exist in the benefit system, 97% get their money within two weeks.

Eligibility: From start to finish

Sickness-related absence: Firms and the state need to be informed that they must start paying the benefit and what the start date is. To keep it simple self-identification; firm or state direction; or any communication by the NHS should each be regarded as starting the benefit period.

Lay-off absence: If employed people (of all types i.e. employee, self-employed etc) are absent from work for business reasons – lack of business or state-directed shut-down – then, just as with sickness-related absence, communication by the firm would fulfil the eligibility condition.

Leaving the benefit: As the benefit is temporary it will be necessary to close the claim at some stage. But when that happens is indeterminate. So, it is necessary to keep in touch through regular contact in order to maximise the speed with which the person is both ‘cured’ and seen to be ‘cured’.

Importantly, the regular contact should identify when the benefit ends. And if possible, to set out a plan or strategy to re-integrate the individual back into work and/or society. The plan for re-integration into the world of work should be agreed with the firm. The plan for re-integration into society should be with the state.

As to the regularity of contact, ‘fortnightly signing’ is an iconic feature of the benefit system. Its frequency would fit in with the objective of trying to minimise the time spent outside society and maximise the proportion of the population who have been through the process and out the other side.

In addition, a post-benefit contact perhaps after three months – along the lines of an MOT or a six-month dentist check-up – could both check on the health and re-integration in society; and inform the government of how the virus is passing through and affecting the population.


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.