Covid-19 and everyday experiences of hardship: why charitable provision is not enough

Covid-19 and everyday experiences of hardship: why charitable provision is not enough

Photo by Laura James

THE BMJOPINIONMany commentators have rightly observed that the coronavirus pandemic has amplified long-standing socioeconomic and health inequalities, and exposed both the fragility of the UK’s social security system and the growing reliance by so many on charitable food provision. At a time of global crisis, the UK’s fraying safety net has been under scrutiny and subject to urgent—though temporary—changes to slightly strengthen it, as part of efforts to improve the experiences of those relying on out-of-work social security for the first time. 

It should not, however, have taken a global pandemic to get us talking about the endemic insecurity and everyday hardship that characterises social security receipt. The shortcomings with provision, which has been hollowed out and residualised by successive governments, have long been clear to all who took more than a passing interest. Just as social security provision deteriorated and weakened so too—and in direct response—charitable food provision increased. As the state withdraws, the charitable sector expands, providing much needed emergency provision in the form of food parcels, community food hubs, and the sharing of excess, “waste” food from retailers. 

Through the Covid Realities research programme, we have been working directly with over a hundred parents and carers to document life on a low income during the pandemic. By keeping online diaries, responding to pre-recorded audio questions, and participating in virtual discussion groups, parents are sharing their experiences, and taking part in conversations about what needs to change, and why. Their accounts reveal the shortcomings with the social security system before the pandemic, but also the profound limitations of the government’s economic response to covid-19. Changes like the temporary £20 uplift to Universal Credit, while welcomed by those who receive it (many don’t because of being on legacy benefits or subject to the benefit cap) are often experienced as insufficient to help families with rapidly rising costs related to lockdown. What these diaries also reveal is how the strategies that families have in place to get by on a low-income—shopping regularly to access low-cost items; securing deliveries from cheaper edge-of-town supermarkets; visiting friends and families for meals; and making use of community forms of support—have been made impossible by covid-19.

Written by Ruth Patrick, Maddy Power, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Sydnie Corley, Geoff Page


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