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COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Information FAQs (March 20 2020)

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Health / Testing / Social Distancing

The latest health advice from the Public Health Agency:

  • Stay at home if you have coronavirus symptoms. The symptoms include a high temperature (you feel hot to touch on your chest or back) and a continuous cough (this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly).
  • Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.
  • You do not need to contact 111 to tell them you’re staying at home (111 is now available in NI).
  • If you have symptoms, stay at home for 7 days
  • If you live with other people, they should stay at home for 14 days from the day the first person got symptoms (this is new advice as of 16th March)
  • If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.
  • If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.
  • You can find regular updates from the Public Health Agency (PHA) on their website or on the Department of Health advice for NI.

The latest testing advice:

  • At the moment, the Public Health Agency have decided testing for coronavirus is not needed if you’re staying at home.
  • Currently, mass testing will not be carried out in Northern Ireland as we don’t have the available capacity and resources.
  • However, the Health Minister has announced testing capacity would be expanded to about 800 Covid-19 tests per day. His department is considering bringing in private suppliers week commencing 23rd March.

How can I reduce my chances of contracting Coronavirus?

  • Wash your hands more often – with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitiser when you get home or into work, when you blow your nose, sneeze or cough, eat or handle food.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who have symptoms.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in a bin and wash your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces in the home.
  • Practice social distancing as much as you possibly can.

What is social distancing?

  • This is advice we should all be taking to reduce social interaction between people in order to reduce the transmission of Coronavirus. Below are some simple steps you can take:
  • Avoid contact with someone who is displaying symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19). These symptoms include high temperature and/or new and continuous cough.
  • Avoid non-essential use of public transport, varying your travel times to avoid rush hour, when possible.
  • Work from home, where possible. Your employer should support you to do this. Please refer to employer guidance for more information.
  • Avoid large gatherings, and gatherings in smaller public spaces such as pubs, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, bars, clubs.
  • Avoid gatherings with friends and family. Keep in touch using remote technology such as phone, internet, and social media.
  • Use telephone or online services to contact your GP or other essential services.

Should I wear a mask when out in public?

  • If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.
  • To find out more on when you should wear masks and how to use them, visit the World Health Organisation’s website.

Travel advice

Can I still go abroad?

  • The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) now advises against all non-essential travel worldwide. This advice took effect immediately on 17 March and applies initially for a period of 30 days.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented international border closures and other restrictions. All countries may restrict travel without notice. 
  • You can find out more on how to change or cancel your travel plans here for British or Irish citizens.

What to do if I am already out of the country?

  • Check here for travel advice in your location regularly and sign-up to email alerts.
  • You must follow the advice of local authorities.
  • If you wish to leave the country you are in, contact your airline or travel company and your insurance provider as soon as you are able, and keep up to date with the latest developments.
  • If the local authority where you are proposes to quarantine you for your own protection, you should follow their advice. When you are abroad, your safety and security is their responsibility.

My travel is essential, can I still go?

  • Check here for the latest guidance and best practice around essential travel. There is a checklist which includes points such as insurance, entry restrictions and planning ahead financially/medically.

Life in the community and local support

How can I help people in my community?

  • Those that are more vulnerable or at risk are advised to self-isolate and stay at home. As such, many people who are elderly, immunocompromised, or have underlying medical conditions are going to face isolation. We’ve seen some fantastic ways that communities are helping each other, such as:
  • Start a WhatsApp or facebook group or utilise a network like Neighbourhood Watch/Nextdoor, so you can support each other, and contact is easily accessible.
  • If you are able, volunteer to help your neighbours or those that you know who live in isolated rural areas. You can do this by leaving a note, printing off the form saved here or checking out websites like Volunteer Now  or Self-Isolation Helpers to sign up to help in your local area.
  • Join a local Facebook group.
  • Donate what extra food you can afford to purchase to a food bank such as:
    • Check out the Trussel Trust and search for one near you!
  • Additionally, if you are looking for funding for your community group that specifically aims to support older isolated people, check out The Coronavirus Community Fund who are currently allocating grants.

 Should I be stockpiling food?

  • No, definitely don’t panic buy. If we all shop normally retailers will be able to keep the supply of goods flowing. Shortages are being caused by panic buying, not by lack of supply.

What is the best way to shop?

  • If you can, shop local – it is especially important to support smaller local businesses within our communities. There will be fewer crowds and fresh local produce.
  • Additionally, some of our local shops are offering free home delivery. We will continue to update this section as we learn about those who are – so send us a message if you know of any!
  • If you are a member of the elderly community, some of the bigger supermarkets are offering specific hours when only you will be able to shop, so as to avoid big groups of people. Contact your local supermarket to see if this is something they offer and at what times.

 Should I still go to cafes, bars and restaurants?

  • No, the Government has announced UK pubs, restaurants, bars and other social venues to close as of Friday 20th March in an effort to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus, but they can continue to provide takeaway services. This will also apply to nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres. 
  • However, these local establishments will take a financial hit during the pandemic. As such, purchasing a gift card either online or over the phone (which can be used at a later date) is a great way to continue supporting local businesses, whilst also practicing social distancing.


When will the schools open again?

  • It has been announced by the First Minister that all schools will close as of Monday 23rd March, and many have already done so. At this point in time we are unsure when the schools across NI will reopen.
  • The most up to date information on all schools here.

Will there be any measures put in place to help those who normally get free school meals?

  • At the moment the Department of Communities have not confirmed measures but options being discussed are providing families directly with the funds to purchase food or continue to open the schools at mealtime.

Will my child have to sit their GCSE or A Level exam?

  • No, all exams have been cancelled but students will still receive a final grade.
  • In a statement from the Education Minister, Mr Weir said the system that would be used to award grades would be “a combination of prior achievements, internal assessments, predicted grades, analysis and modelling of existing data trends to provide the necessary assurance about the robustness, accuracy and fairness of the grades awarded”.

 Will students be expected to still attend online classes?

  • Most schools are making provisions to support remote online learning and your child will be provided with lesson packs.
  • Additionally, lots of local teachers are offering free virtual help with homework if things get too tricky, so contact your school to see if this is something your children can avail of.
  • If you are concerned that your child doesn’t have the appropriate tools to support online learning, please get in touch.

 Are FE Colleges closed?

  • Yes, further education colleges will close their campuses as of Monday 23rd March.

 Are the universities closed?

  • Yes, both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster have moved to remote lectures and seminars. You can find the most up to date information here.

Will my child’s nursery close?

  • In line with the announcement on 19th March, all state nursery and pre-school groups will close, however private nurseries can remain open at their discretion.

Losing work / Benefits / Financial struggles

Will the Government be offering any support for people who could lose their jobs?


  • The Government has announced today (20th March) that they will set up a job retention scheme, any employer can apply.
  • HMRC will supply grants for 80% of salaries up to £2500 per month.
  • This will be backdated to 1st March and open for 3 months initially.
  • First grants will be paid within weeks, and hopes that the full scheme is up and going by the end of April.


How do I apply for sick pay?

  • If you’re an employee and unable to work because you’re ill you may be able to get Statutory Sick Pay. It is paid by your employer and can be paid for up to 28 weeks.
  • This payment will now be from Day 1 of someone being off work. 
  • You can find out more by clicking here or call 08002321271 to see if you are entitled to any additional support. 

I have been laid off because of the Coronavirus, what can I do?

  • If you have lost your job due to the crisis, we’d advise you to call the Freephone Benefits Check: 0800 232 1271
  • Advice NI ‘Welfare Changes’ hotline can be contacted on: 0808 8020020
  • Advice NI also have a debt advice service: 08000 281881

 My employer has asked me to take time off of work, what can I do?

  • Your employer can ask you to stay at home or take unpaid leave if there’s not enough work for you. A lay-off is if you’re off work for at least 1 working day. Short-time working is when your hours are cut.
  • You can find out more about what you are entitled to here.

Has the Universal Credit allowance increased?

  • Yes, following an announcement on the 20th March, the Universal Credit standard allowance will be increasing by £1,000 for next 12 months.
  • Additionally,  the Local Housing Allowance in Universal Credit will increase to cover 30% of market rent. 

Will I lose my benefits if I self-isolate because of the Coronavirus?

  • The Department for Communities has moved to reassure people claiming benefits that their benefits will not be affected if they need to self-isolate due to COVID-19.
  • A spokesperson said: “If people cannot attend an appointment at their Jobs and Benefits office and/or medical assessment centre because of self-isolation, they should let us know immediately. Nobody will be penalised for doing the right thing. In addition, anyone self-isolating who is self-employed or who works on a short-term contract can apply for Universal Credit or new-style Employment and Support Allowance, during the period of self-isolation.”
  • To apply for financial help, contact the Department’s Finance Support service on 0800 587 2750 (Freephone) or 0800 587 2751 (textphone for customers with hearing difficulties).
  • All face to face appointments have been cancelled. Communication will continue via letter, phone and online journals. No one will be penalised for these postponed appointments
  • You do not need to sign on for JSA.
  • Access To Work programme has been suspended.
  • The latest information on how the current emergency is affecting the benefits system, including attending appointments, can be found here.  

I am self-employed, am I entitled to anything?

  • Anyone self-isolating who is self-employed can apply for Universal Credit or new-style Employment & Support Allowance.
  • Self employed people affected by loss of business can access Universal Credit in full at a rate equal to statutory sick pay (£94.25 per week)
  • You can also apply for these if you are prevented from working because of a risk to public health.
  • Call 08002321271 to check what they are entitled to or visit the following links on universal credit and support allowance.
  • Additionally, following an announcement on 20th March, the self assessment tax period will be deferred until January 2021. 

I can’t afford to pay my rent, what should I do?

  • Currently there are no legal protections for renters who can’t afford to pay. However, the Westminster Government is enacting emergency legislation preventing tenants from being evicted from their homes during the coronavirus crisis. Similar assurances would be welcomed here.
  • Speak to your landlord and explain the situation as they are likely to be sympathetic in the current climate. If they do offer a reduced payment or agree to accept late rent, please ensure you get this in agreement in writing.
  • Many parties are also lobbying for a Universal basic Income for everyone to address the financial impact of the crisis. Do you want to join us in our campaign to provide economic security for all? Here are 5 ways you can help:

 Will anything be offered in terms of mortgage payment relief?

  • The Chancellor announced (on 17th March) that homeowners affected by the coronavirus can apply for mortgage payment holidays of up to three months. This was extended to landlords with buy-to-let mortgages on the 18th March. 
  • Repayment holidays won’t kick in automatically. Instead, borrowers who are concerned about meeting their repayments as a result of the outbreak should contact their lender ‘at the earliest possible opportunity’. At this point, the lender will assess the customer’s options on a case-by-case basis.


Who should I call about my tax payments if I lose my revenue stream?

  • HMRC Helpline – 0800 0159 559
  • A new tax helpline has been established specifically for people concerned by the impact of the crisis on their ability to pay tax. They can be contacted to help with: 
    • agreeing an instalment arrangement
    • suspending debt collection proceedings
    • cancelling penalties and interest where you have administrative difficulties contacting or paying HMRC immediately
  • The Chancellor announced today (20th March) that VAT payments will be deferred for the next quarter, and businesses will have until the end of the financial year to pay.

Can you share advice around best practice for working from home and sick pay?

  • NI Business Info has good advice for employers and employees regarding working from home and sick pay, but please be cognisant that this advice may change quickly.

What are the latest updates on rates?

  • No rates payments for the next three months as this will be paid by the government with no costs to businesses. The next rates payments are now due in June. This results in a 25% reduction in business rates.

What grants will be available for businesses?

  • Government launching two new grants (more info, including application process announced in coming days)
  • £10k for businesses with NAV <£15k
  • £25k for retail, tourism and hospitality businesses with NAV £15k – £50k

Will there be any support for SMEs?

  • Yes, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme and info can be found here.
  • Scheme will support loans of up to £5 million in value.
  • The government will provide lenders with a guarantee of 80 per cent on each loan (subject to a per-lender cap on claims)
  • Business loans that were initially announced will be interest free for 12 months, available from next week.
  • Scheme available from 23rd March

Will there be support for larger businesses?

  • Information for larger businesses can be found here.
  • Bank of England will buy short term debt from companies – either new debt directly from the company or previously issued debt through the secondary market. This means companies will be able to continue financing their short-term liabilities.
  • It will also support corporate finance markets overall and ease the supply of credit to all firms.
  • Further details, including on how to access this funding will follow in the coming days, and the scheme will be available from the week commencing 23 March.

Am I eligible for insurance if the Government tells me to close?

  • Unfortunately, most small businesses are unlikely to have such protection included in their insurance policy.
  • Most business interruption cover is in relation to issues like damage to premises.
  • It is worthwhile checking with your individual insurer, but it seems likely that many businesses would not be entitled to compensation even if Government forces closure.

Useful Links

NI Business info homepage https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/campaign/coronavirus-updates-support-your-business

Self employed: https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/coronavirus-support-and-advice-self-employed 


HMRC: https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/coronavirus-tax-helpline-support-businesses-affected-covid-19

Industry Guidance on limiting the spread: https://www.nibusinessinfo.co.uk/content/coronavirus-industry-guidance-limiting-spread

This FAQ sheet has been compiled and provided by the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and is republished with permission.