Millions of Britons risk being driven “over a cliff edge” by the withdrawal of financial support as the Covid-19 lockdown is lifted, the British Red Cross has warned.
In a new report, the Red Cross revealed that support for the most vulnerable dropped at the end of the second lockdown in December, and called on the government to provide £250m in emergency grant funding to avoid people being forced to go without food, clothing or heating if the same happens again when current restrictions are eased.
The call came as a separate report by the Living Wage Foundation found that more than a quarter (27 per cent) of low-paid workers – over a million people – had regularly skipped meals during the coronavirus pandemic of the past year, with almost three in 10 (29 per cent) missing bill payments and a fifth (20 per cent) falling behind on rent or mortgage.
The survey found that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of those earning less than the real living wage – £10.85 an hour in London and £9.50 elsewhere in the UK – had seen their pay fall as a result of the pandemic.
Almost half of the 2,128 workers polled by Survation for the LWF said their low pay had increased their levels of anxiety, 34 per cent that it negatively affected relationships with friends and family and 31 per cent of those who were parents said it harmed their relationships with their children.
Foundation director Laura Gardiner said: “The fact that many low earners – including essential workers who’ve kept the economy going through the pandemic – are forced to skip meals or forego heating their homes is unacceptable.
“As the vaccine is rolled out and we inch back to some sense of normality, it’s clear business as usual isn’t an option. To recover and rebuild, and to truly level up living standards throughout the UK, we will need to see a greater focus on lifting people onto a real living wage that covers the cost of living.”
The British Red Cross conducted research between October and December last year to monitor the effect on the most vulnerable of moving between lockdown and different levels of tiered restrictions.
Its report, The Longest Year, identified two particularly hard-hit groups: the “newly vulnerable” who have never needed help before and struggle with the stigma of asking for support and unfamiliarity over where to obtain it; and those who were struggling before the pandemic and are now “on the brink”.
The report found that during last autumn’s regionally tiered restrictions, some 43 per cent of those in need of financial support to self-isolate were unable to get it. Two-fifths were not confident about where to access financial support during the period of tiered restrictions, including 13 per cent who said it would have been helpful to them.
And half (50 per cent) found it difficult to keep track of coronavirus restrictions in their area, with three-quarter (74 per cent) saying they found it easier to simply limit how much they left home rather than try to keep up with what they were allowed to do.
More than half (55 per cent) said they found it hard to talk about their problems when so many other people were having a difficult time. Of those who are not confident they can recover from the impact of the pandemic on their lives, some 71 per cent cited their mental health as a key factor.
As part of the move out of lockdown, the British Red Cross called on the government to give £250m a year to local councils in England for emergency welfare for people whose circumstances change quickly due to the pandemic.
And the charity – which has itself given out £2.4m to people in immediate need during the pandemic – called on the government and devolved authorities urgently to improve access to self-isolation support payments.
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.
“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.”