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Covid-19: Medical and Funeral Expenses

Volume 806: debated on Monday 28 September 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they are making to assist with (1) the medical, and (2) the funeral, expenses of those who have had COVID-19.

My Lords, the circumstances of their passing and the burial of the dead has been one of the most heart-breaking aspects of the Covid epidemic. The Government have sought to soften the blow with additional payments, but nothing we do can make up for the sadness caused by this horrible disease for those who seek to mourn. As set out in the NHS constitution, access to services is based on clinical need, not on an individual’s ability to pay. To support health services through Covid, we have allocated an additional £48 billion to support this principle.

Is it not true that the places that are in the greatest need of financial support are the poorest areas? It has been confirmed again that people living in the poorer areas of our country are twice as likely to die of this virus as those in better-off areas. I know that a basic funeral will cost perhaps £1,500 which, for ordinary people in poorer areas who are in any case struggling to make ends meet, a bill of this sort—and it can often be more than that—is totally heart-breaking, with anxiety and stress resulting from it. Do the Government have any proposals to ensure that poorer folk in particular will be able to meet their needs without having to suffer the stress that they feel at the present time?

It is true that there is a correlation between the mortality of this disease and poverty. That is why we have enhanced the funeral expenses payments by increasing the additional costs by £300. We are also supporting public health funerals by issuing new guidance to local authorities to support this important measure which brings a degree of quiet to those who die in poverty.

Does the Minister share my concern that older people and their families are picking up the tab, with many being forced to pay a steep and unexpected coronavirus bill by their care providers? Some care home residents are being asked to pay more than £100 a week on top of their usual care home fees as PPE and the cost of covering staff absences push the finances of some care homes into the red and threaten their sustainability? What consideration have the Government given to outlawing or capping such charges, as called for by Age UK? With a second peak under way and care homes under acute financial pressure, will the Minister commit to making sure that the Government’s emergency funding is directed to them?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to say that there are costs related to PPE for social care homes. That is why we have put together a winter plan for social care that envisages a massive investment in Covid-compliant PPE for care homes providing both adult care and child care. It will be free of charge for those homes. The money that we are supporting through the DWP funeral expenses payment and through the public health funerals programme has been enhanced. In 2018, £6.3 million was spent on public health funerals by local authorities and further sums have been allocated to support this important payment.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear the Minister’s comments, but I was absolutely shocked to see that the price of a budget funeral is really quite high, at between £4,000 and £6,000, with a cremation at £3,400. Too many people are in the category where there is no way of finding that money. When the Minister answered the first Question on this, he said that the council system was still going. Could he elaborate on that, because in my council days in social services we handled a lot of funerals for people who simply had no money? This is a great anxiety for families and they need to know that they will be cared for at that stage.

My Lords, the costs of a funeral are indeed a heavy burden on families with little wealth and have to support these payments. The Cabinet Office holds weekly meetings with the funeral industry in order to ensure that measures are in place to support families of the kind my noble friend described. We have put together guidance in order to ensure Covid-compliant funerals at the lowest possible cost, and for those who cannot afford to pay, the DWP has measures in place to make a payment up front for funeral costs in order to support them.

My Lords, public health funerals cost on average about £1,500 each. Many local authorities such as Birmingham spend a significant amount on them—almost £1 million in 2019. Local authorities are reporting an increase in demand for public health funerals. Will the Government take that into account in next year’s local government settlement?

My Lords, I do take note of the point made by the noble Baroness. This is entirely on our radar screen. We are aware of these additional costs and we will take note of the point that she has made.

My Lords, will my noble friend join me in paying tribute to the tremendous community-based voluntary work of the National Burial Council, the British Islamic Medical Association, the Muslim Council of Britain and others which have co-ordinated and supported a community that has suffered a disproportionate number of deaths during this pandemic? Will he agree to receive a report on this from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims and meet with some of the volunteers to ensure that the Government can learn lessons from the practice of faith-based initiatives in this difficult period?

My Lords, I pay tribute to those who represent faith-based funeral interests. They have been presented with a huge challenge during Covid and have worked with the Cabinet Office in order to put together the kind of measures necessary to give people of faith the respectful funerals that they deserve. I would be glad to receive the report that my noble friend described.

My Lords, I declare my interests, as set out in the register. Knowing that more men than women have sadly died from Covid-19, could the Minister tell us how many Covid-19 widows there are in the UK and what steps the Government have taken to support them financially, as well as to overcome their bereavement and grief?

My Lords, I am not sure the statistics that the noble Lord describes are at my disposal. However, the phenomenon he describes is both heart-breaking and of deep concern. Payments have been made to charities that have an interest in bereavement support to address this exact problem. Our thoughts and prayers go to all those who have lost a spouse or loved one to Covid.

My Lords, I ask about eligibility for the funeral expenses payment. It looks to be less about those who do qualify and more about those who do not. For example, somebody on benefits, who is responsible for a funeral and makes an application, will be turned down if a close member of the family is not on benefits. How many people have applied for this payment since the pandemic began and what proportion have been successful in receiving it?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that the calculation is dependent on close relatives being on social benefit. It is a sliding scale, but it is applied in an open-hearted and generous-minded way, and there are relatively discretionary payments, of up to £1,000 for ancillary costs that go beyond the funeral parlour costs, to try to create the kind of funeral that marks the passing of a loved one. We are keeping this payment under very close review, given its sensitivity, and will review it if there are concerns.

My Lords, given that the number of deaths in the UK has increased by 60,000 on last year, do the Government have up-to-date figures for the number of public health funeral claims being made to local authorities?

My Lords, I do not have up-to-date figures for the claims up to this month, but the number is expected to have risen. We published refreshed non-statutory good practice guidance this month, for all local authorities, to ensure that public health funerals are delivered respectfully and with care, both for the individuals and their families.

Sitting suspended.