Last updated on: 07/01/21

In the wake of COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus, the UK government has announced a series of measures to support those affected.

As a new national lockdown was announced for England on 4 January 2021, expected to last until mid-February at the earliest, we explain the current advice and help for employees, the self-employed and small business owners, plus how you can protect yourself and others from viruses.

Keep up to date with all the latest news from Which? on the coronavirus outbreak.

Can tradespeople still work in customers’ homes?

According to the government’s latest advice for the current national lockdown, workers are still allowed to go to work if working from home is not an option.

This includes construction workers, those that work in factories, plants or warehouses as well as those that work in other people’s homes such as cleaners and tradespeople.

The government has produced a separate detailed guide for people who carry out work in other people’s homes which sets out how to work safely. This was updated on 21 December 2020. This includes social distancing wherever possible, wearing a face covering, not sharing tools, using a fixed-pairing system for people that have to work in close proximity with each other and washing hands regularly.

You can continue work as long as you are healthy and don’t have any symptoms of coronavirus.

You shouldn’t work in people’s homes if they have coronavirus, unless they need urgent or essential repairs or maintenance, for example if the home has no hot water.

Consider whether you can use technology to replace any parts of your service. For example, Stoake Ltd, a Which? Trusted Trader which supplies and fits stoves, told us they’re now providing quotes to homeowners using FaceTime and Google Hangouts.

In Scotland, work carried out in people's homes can also continue, but should be limited to essential goods and services at Level 4. These essential services include work carried out by utility engineers, the delivery, installation and repair of key household items, services to support home moves and domestic cleaning. Further details can be found online at gov.scot.

In Wales, work in other people's homes can continue as long as it is managed in a safe way. Workers should take steps such as ensuring a distance of at least two meters is maintained wherever possible, reducing loud noises that require people to shout over them, increasing environmental cleanliness and ensuring no one with COVID-19 type symptoms are present on the premises. Further guidance has been published online, and is periodically updated.

Under the current rules in Northern Ireland, tradespeople, workers and builders can continue to carry out repairs, installations and deliveries in other people's houses unless their businesses have been specifically required to close.

Can your business premises stay open?

Under the national lockdown, all non-essential retail businesses have been asked to close. 

According to the latest advice on closing certain businesses and venues in England, which was last updated on 24 December 2020, builders’ merchants and suppliers, garden centres, vehicle repair and MOT services, and many businesses supplying services rather than goods are among those who are not required to close. 

However, this guidance specifies that employers have a legal responsibility to protect their workers and others from risks to their health and safety. Read the government's shops and branches guidance for more details on whether reopening is right for your business, and what safety measures will need to be put in place.

On 21 December 2020, the government also updated its guidance for employers and workers in the construction industry. Head to its advice on construction and other outdoor work for more details.

If you, or your employees, need to carry out work in other people's homes, read the new guidance for working in homes.

What to do if you feel ill

You should stay at home and self-isolate if you have any of the following:

  • a high temperature - this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back.
  • a new, continuous cough - this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, and/or having three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours
  • a change to your sense of smell of taste - this means you have noticed that you cannot smell or taste anything, or that things smell or taste different to normal.

If you have these symptoms you should stay at home and self-isolate for 10 days from when your symptoms started and arrange to have a test.

Don’t go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital, as you could pass the virus on to other people. Read the government’s advice on staying at home.

You may need to self-isolate for longer if your symptoms don’t improve, or your condition gets worse. Use the NHS 111 online coronavirus service to assess your symptoms.

What to do if you’re self-employed

Self-employed workers whose income has been affected by the coronavirus outbreak can now apply for the government’s self-employed income support scheme (SEISS).

You can check your eligibility and make an application for a grant online.

If you’re eligible, you’ll receive a taxable grant of up to 80% of your average monthly earnings, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month. This is paid as a lump sum, and may be backdated - HMRC will inform you when you can backdate your claim to.

This is open to anyone with trading profits up to £50,000 a year, who traded in the tax year 2019-20 and intends to continue trading in 2020-21, and who earn the majority of their income through self-employment. You must also have submitted a tax return for 2018-19.

The pay you receive is based on your tax returns over the past three years. If you’ve been self-employed for less than three years, an average will be taken from the tax returns you’ve submitted so far. If you’ve only submitted a return for 2018-19, it will be used as the basis for your payment.

The money won’t have to be paid back, and you can continue to work in whatever capacity is possible. This can be continuing your usual job, or getting another job.

Other help for self-employed workers

If you’re self-employed, you won’t be able to claim statutory sick pay.

To ensure that self-employed people have some financial support if they are unwell, self-isolating or otherwise unable to work as normal during the outbreak, the rules for claiming Universal Credit have been relaxed.

Government has suspended the ‘minimum income floor’, the earnings threshold used to work out whether you can receive benefits and how much you should receive. This means self-employed people will now be able to access Universal Credit. The amount they can receive is equivalent to the statutory sick pay rate.

However, be aware that, if you receive an SEISS payment, it will be treated as earned income for that month. This will likely wipe out any Universal Credit payments you were due to receive and cause it to stop. If you wish to continue to claim, you’ll have to re-apply for Universal Credit in July.

Employment and Support Allowance will be paid to eligible people from the first day they are sick, rather than from day eight. Find out how to make a claim for benefits during the outbreak.

Mortgage lenders are arranging ‘mortgage holidays’ for those in financial difficulty due to COVID-19. Renters will be able to get contributions towards their rent from local housing allowances.

Self-assessment tax payments normally paid midway through the tax year (known as ‘payments on account’) have been deferred until January 2021. You might also be able to get help from HMRC if coronavirus affects your ability to pay any taxes that you owe.

Read more advice from Which? Money about help and support for the self-employed.

What to do if you’re an employer

Two construction workers talking to each other on a building site

Make sure that you have contact details for your staff in case of an emergency, and that they know how to report illness to you or their manager.

Current government advice is for everyone to stay at home wherever possible, and limit contact with other people. Rules of what you can and cannot do depend on whether you’re in England, Northern IrelandScotland or Wales.

Workers are asked to work from home, unless they cannot work from home. However, as of 15 June, companies in the retail and construction industries are permitted to return to work provided employers carry out a risk assessment and introduce measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

Employers must encourage staff to work from home wherever possible. If employees do have to leave their home for their work, employers must have carried out a risk assessment, and put in place reasonable steps to prevent harm in the workplace.

For instance, where possible, they should maintain a two-metre distance from others, ensure that they can regularly wash their hands with hot water and soap, or disinfect them with hand sanitiser. Employers may need to install shields or screens to separate people from each other.

If you are considering reopening a shop to the public, read the full advice for those working in the retail industry. Find out how to protect on-site construction workers in the guidance for construction and other outdoor work. 

If you, or your employees, need to carry out work in other people's homes, read the new guidance for working in homes.

If an employee has to take time off because they’re infected with coronavirus, or following government advice to self-isolate, as a minimum, you’ll need to give them statutory sick pay from the first day they’re absent.

To understand more about sick pay, read the latest advice for employers from Acas (the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service).

Coronavirus and financial support for small businesses

On 5 January 2021, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the government would provide £4.6bn in new grants to support businesses during the latest national lockdown.

This includes one-off grants of up to £9,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, plus a £594m discretionary fund for other affected businesses. You can find out more about government business support on gov.uk.

This is in addition to existing business support grants and schemes. 

Smaller businesses (with fewer than 250 employees) will be able to reclaim statutory sick pay paid for COVID-19 absence from the government. This refund will cover up to two weeks’ sick pay per eligible employee.

Under the coronavirus job retention scheme, as an employer you will be able to contact HMRC for a grant to cover the wages of staff members if you cannot pay them, so that you can keep them on your payroll. Grants will cover 80% of an employee’s wages, up to £2,500 a month.

The scheme has been extended until the end of March 2020, and it’s possible to put employees on ‘flexible furlough’ where, if possible, they can still work some of their contracted hours and then be put on furlough for the remaining time not worked.

A temporary coronavirus business interruption loan scheme is now available for small and medium-sized businesses, helping  businesses to access bank lending and overdrafts. For SMEs, loans of up to £5m will be available with no interest due for the first 12 months Loans in the form of overdrafts and invoice finance facilities can last for up to three years, and other loans and asset finance facilities can last for up to six years.

To apply, the business must be based in the UK, and have an annual turnover of up to £45m. You’ll need to provide proof that the business would be viable if it weren’t for the pandemic, and that it has been adversely impacted by the coronavirus.

To borrow £30,000 or more, you’ll also need to confirm that your business wasn’t classed as a ‘business in difficulty’ on 31 December 2019.

If you have business premises and you’re already eligible for Small Business Rates Relief, you’ll also be able to get a one-off grant of £10,000 to help meet your ongoing costs.

If you normally pay VAT, you won't need to make any VAT payments from 20 March to 30 June. If any work you carry out during this time would normally be subject to VAT, you'll have until the end of January 2021 to pay it.

If the outbreak has an impact on your ability to pay any taxes that you owe, you can call HMRC’s dedicated coronavirus helpline on 0800 0159 559 for help and support.

If you’re a Which? Trusted Trader and you need legal advice, tax advice or support with your mental health, find out more about our free helplines.

What to do if you’re an employee

If you’re diagnosed with COVID-19 or have to self-isolate in line with government advice, you should tell your employer as soon as possible.

You’ll be eligible for statutory sick pay from the first day that you can’t work.

If your employer asks for evidence that you needed to self-isolate, from Friday 20 March, you’ll be able to get an ‘isolation note’ by visiting NHS 111 online and completing an online form, rather than visiting a doctor.

How to protect yourself and your customers

Person washing their hands at a sink

To avoid catching or spreading coronavirus, follow the government’s advice:

  • Stay at least two metres away from people living in the property while you’re working
  • Use personal protective equipment while working if possible, such as disposable gloves and face masks
  • Avoid touching surfaces or objects in the home if you can, for example light switches and the kettle (it’s probably wise to turn down offers of tea and biscuits)
  • Wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds.
  • Always wash your hands when you get home or into work.
  • Use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze.
  • Put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of coronavirus.
  • Only travel on public transport if you need to.
  • Avoid social activities and events with large groups of people.

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