Charity food banks in Britain are “preparing for the worst” as the government starts winding up emergency aid measures put in place to cushion the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on millions of workers and low-income households.
Britons face a triple whammy as pandemic benefits end and heating costs go up as winter arrives
Food banks are dealing with donation shortages and expect a surge in demand when the emergency aid payments stop
Developed countries are winding up their pandemic aid programs; the US in September, Australia and Canada to follow soon
An extra weekly payment of 20 pounds ($37.30) to support the country’s poorest families will be cut next month, and more than one million workers face an uncertain future as Britain becomes the earliest big economies to halt its COVID-19 job-support scheme.
Food banks — which hand out staple goods, from dried pasta to baby food — are especially concerned about the loss of the top-up to the Universal Credit (UC) benefit, which is claimed by almost 6 million people, according to official statistics.
“You’re going to have parents who are going without food so their kids can eat,” said Garry Lemon, policy and research director at the Trussell Trust, which supports more than 1,200 food bank centres across Britain.
The British move comes as other countries start wrapping-up state aid programs announced last year as COVID-19 battered the economies around the world.
In the United States, pandemic unemployment benefits came to an end in early September, a month after a moratorium on residential evictions expired.
Australia and Canada have also announced plans to end income subsidies in the near future.
A British government spokesperson said the benefit was always intended to be temporary and had been effective, adding that its focus now was on helping people back to work.
‘Only bill you can change is your food bill’
However, anti-poverty groups said the loss of the benefit would deal a heavy blow to low-income Britons.
It also comes as rising gas prices usher in higher domestic energy bills, with the average household expected to pay 139 pounds ($259.50) more each year.
She said her family was behind on paying bills due to financial stresses from the pandemic and the benefits cut would hit them hard.
“The one bill you can amend from week to week is your food bill,” said Emma, who is sharing her experiences with the Covid Realities research project that tracks the impact of the pandemic on low-income parents and carers.
Emma said she went to a food bank every few months, aiming to minimise visits so as not to deprive anyone in an even worse position.
“It’s going to be more regular [now], it makes me so upset because it’s something that we never thought we’d have to do,” Emma said.
Choosing between meals and warmth
Nationwide, more than 800,000 people will be pushed into poverty by the benefit cut, according to British think-tank, the Legatum Institute.
A survey of more than 2,000 people carried out for the Trussell Trust found a fifth of the benefit’s claimants said they would “very likely” need to skip meals once the bonus payment was withdrawn.
A similar number said they would struggle to afford to heat their homes.
“Independent food banks are bracing themselves for a surge in demand as well as the challenges of food supply shortages and a reduction in donations,” said Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network.
At Moray Food Plus, a food bank in Scotland, Mairi McCallum said they were already running “at almost full capacity”.
“There’s only so much more we are able to do,” he said.
At one East London food bank — where a stream of visitors arrived to pick up bags of store cupboard essentials — organisers have already had to limit the total lifetime number of visits to 12 per household.
“We’re always getting new clients,” said Jemima Hindmarch, a spokesperson for The Bow Foodbank, adding that they “constantly” worry about having enough supplies.
The impact of the benefit cut and rising heating costs over the winter months is likely to be “catastrophic” for people already struggling to cope, she said.