New cashback scheme proposed

The government has announced plans to allow customers to get cashback from shops without needing to make a purchase. At the moment, cashback is only available to those who buy goods. The new proposals have been put in place to help protect the UK’s cash system following a steady decline in the use of cash. This process has accelerated significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the government proposals, cashback without a purchase could be widely available from retailers of all sizes in local communities across the UK.

Although cash use is declining, with people increasingly choosing cards, mobile and e-wallets to make payments, it remains crucial for at risk groups across the UK – including the elderly and vulnerable. Many find that cash is more accessible than digital payment methods or that it helps them to budget and manage their finances.

Current EU law makes it difficult for businesses to offer cashback when people are not paying for goods and this has been a barrier to widespread adoption. The government is now considering scrapping these rules once the transition period ends on 31 December 2020.

It is not clear what impact such a move would have on retailers who could face additional costs and administrative issues dealing with providing cashback with no clear benefit for them.

The government has also said that it is considering giving the FCA overall responsibility for maintaining a well-functioning retail cash system given its existing regulatory role and consumer protection objective.

Students warned of tax scams

HMRC is warning new students starting university that they could be targeted by scammers trying to steal their money and personal details. 

As new students start the academic year they can be particularly vulnerable to tax scams. Coupled with an increase in remote working due to the pandemic can leave students particularly exposed to the work of fraudsters.

Many tax scams are directly targeting university students. Fraudulent emails and texts will regularly include links which take students to websites where their information can be stolen. 

HMRC has written to universities, via Universities UK, asking them to help ensure their students know how to spot a scam and to raise awareness of this issue. These scams can offer fake tax refunds or help with claiming Covid-related financial support. HMRC has also seen frauds offering spurious support with reclaiming council tax, purporting to be from TV Licensing, the DVLA or ‘GovUK’.

Students can also be approached to act as ‘money mules’, with offers of reward to transfer funds through their own, genuine financial accounts, inadvertently laundering criminal funds.

Commenting on the warning, the Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: 

'The security and welfare of students is always a priority for universities. The message to students, at what is a particularly stressful time, is to remain vigilant and question anything that seems unusual. Any student who fears their account may have been misused is encouraged to speak to either university support services, their bank, or to the police via Action Fraud.'

New three-tier COVID-19 alert levels

On 12 October, the Prime Minister announced the introduction of a new three-tier system of local COVID-19 alert levels across England. The new system sets the levels at medium, high and very high based on local transmission rates. The legislation to write the new three-tier system into law was approved by Parliament on 13 October 2020.

The medium level which covers most of the country consists of the current national measures, which came into force on 25 September. This includes the Rule of Six, and the closure of hospitality at 10pm.

The high level is for areas with a higher level of infections and additional restrictions will apply. Most areas of England that were already subject to local restrictions have automatically moved into the high alert level. This level primarily aims to reduce household to household transmission by preventing all mixing between households or support bubbles, indoors. The Rule of Six will apply to outdoor spaces, including private gardens.

The “very high” alert level will apply where transmission rates in England are causing the greatest concern. In these areas, the government will set a baseline of prohibiting social mixing indoors and in private gardens, with the Rule of Six allowed in open public spaces like parks and beaches. Pubs and bars will also be expected to close unless they can function as a restaurant and people will be advised not to travel in or out of these areas.

Non-essential retail, schools and universities will remain open in all levels.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also considering bringing in deeper lockdown measures as the second wave of the virus gathers pace.

Levelling up or levelling down?

Our government has introduced a three-tier system for determining the local state of COVID infection and how restrictions in each area of England are to be applied. The grades are instructive.

The three categories are:

  1. Medium alert level – This will cover most of the country and will consist of the current national measures, which came into force on 25 September. It will include the Rule of Six and the closure of hospitality venues at 10pm.
  2. The High alert level – This will reflect many of the current local interventions, but there will now be consistency across the country. This primarily aims to reduce household to household transmission by preventing all mixing between households or support bubbles in any indoor setting. The Rule of Six will apply in outdoor spaces, including private gardens. Most areas which are already subject to local restrictions will automatically move into the “high” alert level.
  3. The Very High alert level – This will apply where transmission rates are causing the greatest concern, based on an assessment of all the available data and the local situation. This includes incidence and test positivity, including amongst older and more at-risk age groups, as well as the growth rate, hospital admissions and other factors. In these areas, the government will set a baseline of prohibiting social mixing indoors and in private gardens, with the Rule of Six allowed in open public spaces like parks and beaches. Pubs and bars must close and can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant – which means serving substantial meals – like a main lunchtime or evening meal. They may only serve alcohol as part of such a meal. People will be advised not to travel in and out of these areas and avoid staying overnight in a 'Very High' area if resident elsewhere. 

What is instructive is the absence of a Low alert level.

The don’ts of the new 3-tier system

The new 3-tier system for classifying local COVID alert status sets out what you should not do depending on the classification of your local area. At present they only apply to England. In summary they are:

Local COVID Alert Level – Very High

This is for areas with a very high level of infections. The Government will set a baseline of measures for any area in this local alert level. Consultation with local authorities will determine additional measures. The baseline means the below additional measures are in place:

  • Pubs and bars must close and can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant – which means serving substantial meals, like a main lunchtime or evening meal. They may only serve alcohol as part of such a meal.
  • Wedding receptions are not allowed
  • People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor or outdoor setting, whether at home or in a public space. The Rule of Six applies in open public spaces like parks and beaches.
  • People should try to avoid travelling outside the ‘Very High’ area they are in, or entering a ‘Very High’ area, other than for things like work, education, accessing youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if they are in transit.
  • People should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK if they are resident in a ‘Very High’ area or avoid staying overnight in a ‘Very High’ area if they are resident elsewhere.

The only area presently classified as Very High is the Liverpool City Region.

Local COVID Alert Level – High

This is for areas with a higher level of infections. This means the following additional measures are in place:

  • People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place
  • People must not meet in a group of more than 6 outside, including in a garden or other space.
  • People should aim to reduce the number of journeys they make where possible. If they need to travel, they should walk or cycle where possible, or to plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport.

The areas presently tagged as High are nominated sections of Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Warrington, Derbyshire, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, North East, Tees Valley, West Midlands, Leicester and Nottingham.

Local COVID Alert Level – Medium

This is for areas where national restrictions continue to be in place. This means:

  • All businesses and venues can continue to operate, in a COVID-Secure manner, other than those that remain closed in law, such as nightclubs.
  • Certain businesses selling food or drink on their premises are required to close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-thru.
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees
  • Organised indoor sport and exercise classes can continue to take place, provided the Rule of Six is followed
  • People must not meet in groups larger than 6, indoors or outdoors

This classification covers the remaining areas of England.

Full details of the area classifications can be accessed on the GOV.UK website. Search for “new local COVID alert levels”.

100 towns to share £80m

The Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, has announced that over 100 towns in England will each be given up to £1 million to kick start regeneration projects and give areas a boost.

The funding to be received varies between £500k and £1m per town. The money will be available to help support projects such as new green spaces, the creation of pop-up businesses spaces, pedestrianising streets to encourage walking or cycling and creating new community hubs to support those living alone.

Projects such as Burton on Trent’s High Street regeneration, for which the town has been awarded £750,000, will see improvements to make the high street a more pleasant place to visit with new bus access and cycle lanes so the public can more easily visit.

In Newcastle-under-Lyme, the £1 million funding will boost the town’s regeneration plans, helping to demolish unloved buildings to make way for a new chapter in the town’s history.

These funds are part of the overall £3.6 billion Towns Fund commitment by government to ensure that spending is decentralised and gives power to local authorities on how they spend money to regenerate their areas. As part of the scheme, each area is receiving support to develop Town Deals – a vision and strategy to improve the local area.

Venues required to record contact details

It has become a requirement for premises and venues across England to have a system in place to record contact details of their customers, visitors and staff. This move is intended to help trace people should a venue be linked to a coronavirus outbreak. 

The government has said that further guidance and, where necessary, regulations will be published specifying the settings affected by the changes. The scope will cover the hospitality industry, such as pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes, as well as close contact services and other tourism and leisure venues.

These businesses and organisations had been advised to collect and share data, with many effectively doing so. However, the data collection programme has now been formally mandated since 18 September 2020 and will support the NHS Test and Trace service.

The main requirements for collecting contact details are as follows:

  • Details to be stored for 21 days and shared with NHS Test and Trace if required
  • Contact details required include name, contact number, date of visit, arrival, and departure time (if possible)
  • Fixed penalties for organisations that do not comply
  • Venues will also be in breach of the law if they take individual bookings of more than six people
  • Customers who do not provide details may be refused entry.
  • All collected data must comply with GDPR and should not be kept for longer than necessary.

Further details are expected to be published shortly and clarified in future regulations.

English plastic bag charge to double

The single-use carrier bag charge came into effect in England on 5 October 2015. This introduced a minimum charge of 5p on single-use carrier bags supplied by large shops (with over 250 employees) in England.

Since then single-use carrier bags are no longer given away free when buying goods from large shops. Shoppers who bring their own bags or use thicker, reusable ‘bags for life’ do not need to pay the charge.

The new law has been very effective, reducing the use of single-use carrier bags by over 95% in the main supermarkets and raising over £180m for good causes.

A consultation on extending the remit of the scheme and increasing the minimum charge was launched in December 2018. The government response to the consultation was published recently following delays caused by purdah restrictions and re-prioritisation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has now confirmed that the charge is to be increased to 10p and extended to include all retailers from April 2021. It is thought that this new charge will apply to almost all plastic bags given out by businesses across England.

The government is also introducing restrictions on the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. These additional restrictions will be introduced in October 2020.

Fast-tracking passport applications

Due to coronavirus disruption, it is currently taking up to six weeks to renew or replace a passport online. It can take even longer if you apply by post or if applying for a first adult passport. Passport offices and the premium and fast track services are currently closed.

However, you may be able to get a passport urgently to travel for compassionate reasons or work, or to prove your identity. For example, if you are applying for a job, mortgage or benefits.

Compassionate reasons to travel include:

  • you or someone you care for needs urgent medical treatment in another country
  • a family member or friend in another country is seriously ill or has died

Valid reasons for urgent travel to another country could apply if, for example, you work:

  • for an airline or haulage company
  • offshore, for example on a rig
  • for government or local government and you’re doing business abroad
  • in healthcare
  • for social services and you need to travel with children
  • for the armed forces or the police

New payments for people self-isolating

The government has announced the launch of a new trial scheme that will pay people on low incomes who need to self-isolate and are unable to work from home. The trial will start in Blackburn, Darwen, Pendle, and Oldham to ensure the process works. The trial scheme started on Tuesday, 1 September 2020. The scheme is then expected to be rolled out in other areas of England with high coronavirus infection rates.

The new scheme will only be made available to people currently receiving either Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit. The benefits payment will allow for payments of up to £182 to be made to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and their contacts.

Individuals who test positive with the virus will receive £130 for their 10-day period of self-isolation. Other members of their household, who have to self-isolate for 14 days, will be entitled to a payment of £182.

Non-household contacts advised to self-isolate through NHS Test and Trace will also be entitled to a payment of up to £182, tailored to the individual length of their isolation period. Any payments made under the scheme will not reduce any other benefits for the recipient.

The scheme will help support people on low incomes who are unable to work from home while self-isolating, either after testing positive, or after being identified by NHS Test and Trace as living in the same household as – or coming into contact with – someone who has tested positive.