TOO many risk going without essentials like food, clothes and energy, unless cash support is bolstered when we exit national lockdown says the British Red Cross.
A new report finds information and support available to the most vulnerable dropped at the point where the national lockdown eased last year, even in areas that remained under the highest level of restrictions.
The Red Cross fears the chain reaction caused by an end to national lockdowns and the furlough payment being cut off in April this year will drive millions off a cliff edge – leaving them unable to recover from the impact of the pandemic on their finances and mental health.
The charity is calling for easy access to emergency cash support for those hit hardest by the pandemic.
Based on research conducted between October and December last year when tiered restrictions were in place, the Red Cross’s report, The Longest Year, says the pandemic has hardest hit two groups. The first is a ‘newly vulnerable’ group of people who have never needed help before and are struggling due to stigma and not knowing where to go for support. The second is a group of people who were struggling before the pandemic and are now ‘on the brink’, facing impossible choices between essentials like food, heating, or clothing for their children.
For both groups, a lack of clear information about the rules in their area made problems worse. It led many to put themselves into ‘self-imposed’ lockdown, limiting interactions with family and friends even when it was safe to see people, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Research conducted between October and December last year shows that when tiered restrictions were in place:
- 43 per cent of people who needed financial support to self-isolate, couldn’t get it.
- More than half of UK adults (55%) find it hard to talk about their problems when so many people are having a difficult time.
- 71 per cent of people who are not confident that they can cope with or recover from the changes to their life caused by the pandemic cited their mental health as a key factor.
- Half of UK adults (50%) found it difficult to keep up to date with the latest coronavirus restrictions in their area and three quarters (74%) found it easier to limit how much they left home rather than try to keep up with changes to the restrictions.
- Two-fifths of UK adults (40%) were not confident about where to access financial support, despite 13 per cent saying this type of support would have been helpful to them under local restrictions.
Norman McKinley, Executive Director of UK Operations at the British Red Cross, said:
“Local and national governments have the best intentions, but too many people have fallen through the cracks.”
As Governments consider what will replace national lockdowns, The Red Cross calls for:
- The UK government to give £250 million a year to local authorities in England to top up ‘local welfare assistance schemes’ – which provide emergency short-term cash for people whose circumstances change quickly due to the pandemic.
- Governments across the UK should review and urgently improve access to self-isolation support payments, so it’s simpler to apply, especially for people on low incomes, or who would struggle to self-isolate without the payments.
- Information about changes to restrictions to be made clearer with financial and emotional support promoted alongside every update.
“Our report shows the inextricable link between financial insecurity and mental health, and that the point at which someone faces hardship is a crucial moment to catch them before they fall into a more desperate situation.
“When you feel like your life is spinning out of control, having agency over the small things – like the cereal you buy or the ingredients for your dinner – makes all the difference. We need flexible and easy to access cash support to give people back their dignity, while also giving them the breathing room to get back on their feet.
“As we come out of the pandemic, we must develop a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be vulnerable and normalise asking for help – whether practical, emotional or financial.”
At the outset of the pandemic, the Red Cross set up a Hardship Fund that provides emergency cash support to vulnerable people. Funded by Aviva and the Aviva Foundation, the Hardship Fund has, to date, given over £2.4million to people in urgent need.
Individuals can’t refer themselves to the Hardship Fund – they are referred to it via a network of community-based referral partners. These include some local authorities, charities, and other groups working with vulnerable people.
The charity suggests local authorities adopt a similar cash grant model to help people buy basics like food and make dignified decisions about the things they need.
The Red Cross also set up a free and confidential coronavirus support line on 0808 196 3651 for anyone who is lonely, worried or in need of practical or emotional support during the pandemic.
The charity is calling on governments to advertise services like this alongside changes to restrictions.
Jeff Creswell, 33, from Glasgow is among those who received an emergency cash grant from the Red Cross when he fell on desperate times at the start of the pandemic.
In 2019 the father of two was running a successful restaurant – but life was busy.
Jeff was working day and night to keep the business afloat, often managing on just three hours sleep, and he ended up losing ownership of the restaurant. After splitting up with his long-term partner, Jeff found himself homeless, unemployed and living in a hostel, thousands of pounds in debt.
“I had so much going on that I didn’t realise what was happening.”
Jeff was determined to get back on his feet. He got a job in a café and found a flat.
“I needed to get out of homelessness. I just worked and worked.
“I thought I was actually getting back on my feet. My house was livable. I had your day-to-day stuff — your couch, your bed, your washing machine.”
Then the pandemic hit. Jeff lost his job and was thrown back into limbo. He wasn’t eligible for Scottish welfare, having exhausted the number of cash grants he could apply for while he was homeless.
“No food, no gas, no electricity, it was one thing after another. It was the British Red Cross that helped me out.
“They gave me a card with £120 on it. I was able to use it to get credit and phone my electric supplier. The Red Cross loaded my gas and electric up with £60 on each. They gave me a food parcel as well.
“It was a nightmare of a time. Before the Red Cross, I think I was suicidal.”
Through the Hardship Fund, the charity gave Jeff two more cash grants of £120 which he describes as a ‘lifeline.’
Although it’s been a tough year, things are now looking up, and he’s got big ideas for life beyond the pandemic.
“I could start up a little tiny sandwich shop. The Red Cross really saved me.”