To many Britons Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United striker, will for ever be associated with the impact of the pandemic on the country’s most vulnerable citizens. The footballer’s campaign to ensure deprived children continue to receive state-financed meals during school lockdowns has repeatedly shamed Boris Johnson’s Conservative government into belated action. The latest scandal he has drawn attention to — photos of food packages that seem to fall short of their supposed value and inadequate to feed children — highlights one of the government’s main failures through the pandemic: an apparent ignorance of how the poorest live and constant need to play catch-up when the reality is pointed out.
Even before the pandemic the UK provided less support for those out of work than comparable countries. After a year of joblessness, Britons receive an average of 17 per cent of their pre-unemployment income compared to 59 per cent in Germany, 54 per cent in Spain or 34 per cent in New Zealand, according to statistics from the OECD. The long wait for benefit payments to arrive was already driving destitution. Those who receive universal credit for the first time have to wait five weeks or more for their first payment. This forces many claimants into rent arrears or to rely on food banks.
Now the pandemic has exposed many more to the threadbare nature of Britain’s welfare state, often for the first time. The number of people on universal credit, a welfare scheme that consolidated different benefits aimed at the low paid, has more than doubled from 2.7m in November 2019 to 5.8m a year later. Many of these new claimants will never have anticipated relying on the welfare system. They include the estimated 3m not covered by other government support schemes, among them many company owner-directors.
There is both a public health and a human justification for a more comprehensive social safety net. Two psychologists argued in the British Medical Journal recently that compliance with lockdown measures remained relatively high with the exception of self-isolation. The writers suggest this demonstrates the importance of support: those who cannot go outside still need to obtain food. The poorest are less likely to have excess funds they can invest in stockpiles, be able to afford the communications technology needed to find help, or have other networks to rely on.
While wealthier workers have often been able to save more during the pandemic, living costs for the most deprived have increased. The Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, says three factors have increased the cost of living for those on low incomes, particularly parents. First are the extra expenses from having children at home, including the costs associated with home schooling. Second, food has become more expensive as shops have reduced their ranges and ended promotions. Finally, the need to cut back on social mixing and the closure of free services means there is less support available.
If the government wants to get ahead of the problem and stop offering open goals to Mr Rashford, it could start by pledging now, even before the annual Budget, to maintain the £20 a week uplift in universal credit scheduled to end in March. Replacing free meal deliveries universally with vouchers, or even cash, would ensure the full value reached parents. It was right to extend for six weeks a ban on evictions that was set to expire in February, but it should be lengthened. For a government that has pledged to help the “left behind”, those on universal credit or relying on free meals have a clear case to be first in line for more support.