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Covid-19: Over-60s

Volume 806: debated on Monday 12 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the advice by the World Health Organization that people over 60 should be treated as vulnerable to COVID-19, what plans they have to support people in this age group during the COVID-19 pandemic who must work because they do not have access to a pension.

My Lords, people over 60 are not automatically considered to be either clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable, as those categories are based on specific clinical circumstances. Employers have a duty of care towards their workers and should ensure that appropriate steps are taken to mitigate health and safety risks in the workplace. For those who are unemployed, we have announced a comprehensive jobs package to build on the existing Jobcentre Plus support.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Is she aware that healthy life expectancy for women in Glasgow is 58 years and six months, but many women in poor health have to continue to work because they still have years to wait for their state pension? Some 80% of key workers in education, health and social care are women, and these occupational groups are among those at the highest risk of Covid-19. Approximately 32% of these women are over 60. Can the Minister explain why the Government cannot give them early access to their state pension?

First, I want to say how we value the work that front-line workers do and how much of a debt we owe to them. The Government are not considering granting early access to the state pension; I am unable to say more than that.

Will the Minister agree with me that women over 60 who work in care homes have to make impossible decisions between a job and their health, and will she further agree with me that they have made great sacrifices over the last few months to protect the people they care for? Will she commit now to ensure all care homes are Covid-safe by improving the health and safety regime and ensuring that employers follow the guidance?

I am pleased to be able to confirm to the noble Baroness and indeed to the whole House that, since late March, the Health and Safety Executive has had an extra £14 million in its budget. It has carried out a programme of interventions to check how businesses are implementing measures to reduce the transmission of Covid. Concerns are acted on quickly, and the HSE decides on what kind of enforcement there has to be.

My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister redouble efforts with colleagues to correct the pension injustice done to the WASPI women, which has been exacerbated by the Covid issues of this year, and ensure fair transitional arrangements for all women born in the 1950s who are affected by these pension changes?

I understand the noble Baroness’s concern. However, both the High Court and the Court of Appeal have supported the actions of the DWP and, because that is being appealed, we are not able to comment on ongoing litigation.

My Lords, could my noble friend the Minister clarify the position for workers living with someone who is shielding or clinically extremely vulnerable? Do they now need to go back to work?

Shielding was paused on 1 August in England, and clinically vulnerable and extremely vulnerable people are now required to follow the same local and national arrangements as the rest of the population. This means somebody living with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable is able to attend work as normal if they are unable to work from home.

My Lords, at the heart of this Question is how to protect the most vulnerable. At the start of the pandemic, my husband received a letter telling him to shield because of his vulnerability and, as the noble Baroness said, in August he got another letter saying that he no longer needed to shield. Given that virus cases are now doubling every day, what consideration is being given to whether such letters will be sent out again, on what criteria and in which tiers of risk?

The answer to the noble Baroness’s question needs to come from the Department of Health and Social Care. I will talk to my colleague and ensure that a letter is written to the noble Baroness with the answers to her questions.

My Lords, I am glad my noble friend agrees that people in their early or mid-60s are fit and healthy, and most are able to work. However, some are genuinely unable to do so. In light of the near 20-year differential in healthy life expectancy across the UK and looming rises in unemployment, might the Government consider a bit more flexibility in the state pension and allowing early access, perhaps on health grounds?

It will come as no surprise to my noble friend that the Government at this point have no plans to review early access to state pensions, as I have already said. Where people have health conditions and are in receipt of universal credit, however, depending on the circumstances, they may be able to receive an additional amount.

My Lords, this Question is particularly pertinent to freelancers and people in the creative industries. In fact, the Musicians’ Union told me this morning that it has around 10,000 members who fall into this category. Given that it is very difficult for people of this age to retrain, and when they do retrain it is difficult for them to get jobs against 20 year-olds and 30 year-olds, what would the Minister suggest these people do when they are in financial extremis?

My understanding is that if somebody’s job has gone—and I take what the noble Lord says about the creative industries—they can apply for universal credit. They will get the support of a work coach, who will help them in the next phase of their journey, in working out what work they could do and what transferable skills they have, and then turning every stone to make sure that they secure alternative employment.

My Lords, just as unemployment started to rise, the Government decided to reinstate conditionality and sanctions. From what the Minister has just said, is she really saying that if somebody who is clinically extremely vulnerable—on grounds of either age or condition—or who lives with someone like that, refuses to take a job, because they think they would put themselves or their partner at risk, the Government would sanction them and take away some of their benefits? Is she really saying that?

I respond by saying to the noble Baroness that the work coaches are exercising caution and compassion when considering sanctions. Only if there is no good reason for somebody to turn down an opportunity will sanctions be applied.

The Question actually refers to

“the advice by the World Health Organization that people over 60 should be treated as vulnerable to COVID-19”.

Some 24.1% of the British population is aged over 60—most of this House is aged around 70. The average age of Covid deaths is 82. Does the Minister agree that the WHO brings itself into disrepute somewhat if it starts categorising a quarter of the population as vulnerable? Would the Minister confirm that the many over-60s who are working hard to get this country back on its feet also deserve a bit of praise?

I completely agree with the noble Lord that it is patronising and not a good thing to be judging people aged over 60, because of their ability to work or otherwise. Noble Lords in this House—I include myself in that—would say that they work very hard and make a great contribution to the country. We owe a huge debt to the over-60 generation, but I am afraid I am not going to comment on what the World Health Organization says people should do.

My Lords, I first ask for clarification of whether the World Health Organization report is based solely on age and does not take potential physical condition into account. Secondly, what steps are the Government taking to prevent long-term unemployment among older workers as a result of Covid-19?

On the noble Lord’s first point, I will need to write to him and clarify that answer. Secondly, the Government have recently announced their plan for jobs, doubling the number of work coaches and putting £150 million into the flexible support fund. The Government are also offering people all manner of support services. We are not writing anybody off and we are going to turn every stone to get people back to work.