New ME Association Guidance: Key points on Employment, ME/CFS and the Coronavirus | 3 June 2020


Dr Charles Shepherd, Hon Medical Adviser, ME Association

We launch this new leaflet today. It’s an addition to the range of special guides that we have been publishing since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown. The leaflet includes a lengthy section on what needs to be considered in a Returning to Work Risk Assessment.

A summary appears below. You can also download the more detailed, six-page leaflet as an interactive pdf HERE.

COVID-19: Reducing the risk of infection.
COVID-19 and ME/CFS Weekly Update.
PVF/PVFS/ME/CFS Following COVID-19 Infection.
MEA Letter: Asserting Your Vulnerable Status.
Welfare Benefit Changes During Lockdown.

Key Points on Employment, ME/CFS and the Coronavirus

Extracts from the leaflet

STATUTORY SICK PAY (SSP)

Everyone in employment who has to self-isolate for up to 14 days – because they or a household member have coronavirus symptoms or the actual infection – should be able to claim SSP:

You can get £94.25 per week SSP if you’re too ill to work. It’s paid by your employer for up to 28 weeks.

If you are staying at home because of COVID-19 you can now claim SSP. This includes individuals who are caring for people in the same household and therefore have been advised to do a household quarantine.

To check your sick pay entitlement, you should talk to your employer, and visit the Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) page for more information.

If you are not eligible for SSP – for example if you are self-employed or earning below the Lower Earnings Limit of £118 per week – and you have COVID-19 or are advised to stay at home, you can now more easily make a claim for Universal Credit or new style Employment and Support Allowance.

If you are eligible for new style Employment and Support Allowance, it will now be payable from day one of sickness, rather than day eight, if you have COVID-19 or are advised to stay at home.

Furloughed Workers

The Furlough scheme, where the government pays 80% of salary up to £2,500 per month, is being extended to the end of October, along with progressive changes to the way it is administered:

  • From July 1st – people will be able to work part-time and be furloughed part-time. The employer paying 100% of the hours world and the government paying 80% of hours on furlough.
  • From August 1st – employers will have to pay National Insurance and pension contributions.
  • From September 1st – employers will pay 10% of the wage bill.
  • From October 1st – employers will pay 20% of the wage bill.
  • If your employer intends to access the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, then they should have discussed with you becoming classified as a furloughed worker. This would mean that you are kept on your employer’s payroll, rather than being laid off.
  • To qualify for this scheme, you should not undertake work for them while you are furloughed. This will allow your employer to claim a grant of up to 80% of your wage for all employment costs, up to a cap of £2,500 per month.
  • You will remain employed while furloughed. Your employer could choose to fund the differences between this payment and your salary but does not have to.
  • If your salary is reduced as a result of these changes, you may be eligible for support through the welfare system, including Universal Credit.

Please note that it is the employer who decides which employees are going to be furloughed – i.e. no longer working at the shop/office etc. but will remain on the payroll and that any payment will only apply to those who are paid via the PAYE scheme.

If you are Self-Employed

Up until now anyone who is self- employed, and affected bythe coronavirus, and meets the eligibility criteria, could claim a government grant of 80% of their average profits, up to a total of £2,500 per month. This is paid in one instalment. Applications for the first payment remain open until July 13th.

All those in self-employment who have submitted a tax return for the last tax year should have been contacted by HMRC via email with the details.

This scheme is being extended with applications for a second one off payment opening in August. This will again cover a period of three months but will be capped at a reduced figure of 70% = £2190 per month, or £6570 on total.

Employers must ensure the workplace is safe

Examples here would include the provision of good hygiene facilities to wash hands and having access to antiviral sanitising products, making sure that the workplace is not overcrowded (desk working for example needs to be such that you are at least six feet away from your neighbour) and anything else that could increase the risk of catching or spreading the virus.

Modifications to duties could include moving the person to role that involves very little public contact or setting up a home working facility with the supply of IT equipment.

ME/CFS IS NOT IN THE ‘EXTREMELY VULNERABLE’ CATEGORY…

But if you have ME/CFS and other conditions as well – which include cancer, organ transplantation, immune deficiency diseases and the use of immunosuppressive drugs such as oral steroids – then you need to continue to self-isolate for 12 weeks and clearly cannot physically go to work.

Returning to Work Risk Assessments

With Lockdown progressively easing, some people with ME/ CFS are now deciding to return to employment that is not home based, or are being asked to return and may not be not sure whether this is going to be safe.

As already noted, employers have a legal duty under the Health and Safety legislation to make sure that their employees are working in a safe environment – something that also applies to the risk of catching coronavirus.

So all employers should be carrying out a detailed assessment that identifies all areas of the workplace, along with workplace activities, that could be involved in the transmission of coronavirus infection.

They should also be taking all reasonable steps to reduce any work-related risk, especially in relation to the provision of hand sanitisers, cleaning of potentially infected surface and complying with social distancing guidelines.

Employers with more than five employers should be making this risk assessment information readily available for employees to see.

For people with ME/CFS with are returning to work, or considering returning to work, there should also be an individual risk assessment.

This is because ME/CFS is a vulnerable medical condition in relation to coronavirus infection – as it is likely to cause an exacerbation or relapse of symptoms.

The MEA has a ‘To Whom It May Concern’ letter that explains this in more detail. This can be given to an employer if a medical statement on vulnerability and ME/ CFS is required.

An individual risk assessment should cover all the factors which are likely increase the risk of adverse health consequences if someone catches coronavirus along with any risk factors that are, or may be present at work.

This assessment should be discussed with your line manager and/or occupational health department – especially if you are not happy about the way in which risk reduction is being dealt with by your employer and/or you would like to have some modifications to working hours, duties, or where you actually work

INDIVIDUAL RISK FACTORS

As already noted in our ‘Reducing the Risk’ leaflet there are a number of individual factors that will increase the risk of adverse health consequences if you catch coronavirus in addition to having ME/CFS. In our current state of knowledge about the virus the most important ones are:

  • Male sex
  • Age over 65
  • Obesity
  • Black or minority ethnic origin
  • Other medical conditions, especially any type of diabetes, coronary artery disease, or serious respiratory disease
  • Vitamin D deficiency

Other individual factors that would increase the risk of coming into contact with coronavirus that need to be considered include:

  • Using public transport to go to and from work
  • Living in a part of the UK where there is a high prevalence of coronavirus

RISK FACTORS AT WORK

While the risk to health in some occupations is obviously going
to be very low (eg working in an office with one other person and no contact with the public) there are other occupations (eg working in a hospital) where the risk increases:

Examples of occupations which carry an increased risk:

  • Any occupation that involves close and/or regular contact with other employees and/or members of the public
  • Working in occupations where viral transmission is more common – health and care sectors, public transport, retail

REDUCING THE RISK AT WORK

Any discussion on reducing the risk at work must include the ways in which your employer is trying to reduce the risk. Some of the more important ones being:

  • Enforcing social distancing – the 2-metre rule – between both employees and between employees and members of the public
  • Good hygiene measures – regular cleaning of surfaces which multiple people are touching’ provision of hand-sanitiser gel
  • Possible use of protractive clothing, masks, etc and perspex acrylic screens where there is frequent face-to-face contact with the public
  • Redeployment to a less risky area of the workplace
  • Adjusting working hours to avoid peak use of public transport – where applicable

This is intended to be a brief summary of the most important points relating to risk assessments at work.

If you are not happy about the situation at work you should explain your concerns to your line manager and/or occupational health department (if there is one)

You should also speak to your trade union health and safety representative, or the relevant person at your professional organisation.


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