What will Britain look like after the Covid era? Like it was in the terrible 19th century, for many it is a relic of the past

What will Britain look like after the Covid era? Like it was in the terrible 19th century, for many it is a relic of the past

Boris Johnson visited a butcher's shop and a war veterans' centre in Salisbury, England, in December 2019. A food bank managed by Trussell Trust is based in the same city, and Johnson was questioned if any of the Conservative Party's policies may lessen the need for its assistance. He said yes, calling it a personal "crusade" to help those in need and praising "everyone who gets engaged with organising food banks," but he also insisted that "it is unacceptable that people should be dependent on them.". When asked about "reducing national insurance for everyone," he responded, "It is vital in my view that the next government, if I am lucky enough to head it, tackles the expense of living for everyone in this country. " The plan is to accomplish just that.
As was the case then, so was it now: he merely threw words out there. All of us know what happened to Johnson and his ministers' national insurance promise, and any hope that Johnson and his ministers had of lowering living expenses has now been dashed. Rather, we've seen skyrocketing energy costs, a rise in inflation, and the sad end of the £20-a-week universal credit "uplift" – slightly eased by budget measures geared at people in employment, but still a grim reality for the 3.4 million people on that benefit who are not in work.

The 'Omicron version' of Covid is causing a lot of concern, but what millions of people have to deal with this winter is a different matter altogether. It was only three months after Johnson's visit to Salisbury that the first lockdown saw a flurry of "mutual aid" and other tributes to low-paid key workers that gave hope that public attitudes toward poverty and insecurity were changing from the usual mix of indifference and old-fashioned moralism that we are told characterise the views of the majority (whether silent or not). For a split second, it appeared as if the emerging realisation that poverty increased one's risk of contracting Covid-19's severe symptoms may be the catalyst for a political turning point. During the summer of 2020, the player Marcus Rashford initiated a campaign against what he called "holiday hunger," which resulted in two government reversals as well as a breach of daytime television and the right-wing press. However, it appears like normal operations have resumed.

As far as "building back better" fantasies go, we face the newest stage of the Covid crisis in a social state worse than when the crisis first started. It was revealed on Wednesday that the Trussell Trust has increased its distribution of food boxes by 11% since this time last year, despite its peak in 2020. Food packages for children have more than doubled in the past two years, compared to increases in food parcels for the general population. More than 5,000 gifts were delivered by staff and volunteers every day in the six months leading up to September, and the charity estimates that number will climb to 7,000 by Christmas. Chief executive officer Emma Revie remarked, "Food banks in our network continue to encounter more and more people experiencing destitution."

Last week, I met with people who run food banks, nonprofits, and other community organisations. Forebodings about rising gasoline prices and hunger were expressed by the people I spoke to after I learned that universal credit had been curtailed. Adding insult to injury, government grants to food banks ended in April, and the £500 million household support fund—created in a hurry as public fury mounted over the universal credit cut and optimistically envisioned as a one-off source of assistance "during the final stages of economic recovery"—proved woefully inadequate to meet demand. One chief executive of a food charity told me, "It looks like a lot of money on paper, but it's going to go in an instant."

In Somerset, Fair Frome, an organisation that runs a food bank, is a part of my local food bank. According to those in control, demand has already increased by around a third since last October, according to what I learned from my conversations with them. "If we do a shout-out for food, it arrives," a member of the public informed me. "Help from the public is still generous." At the height of the pandemic, new volunteers joined the effort and have stayed. It's not just that they're constantly dealing with the symptoms of well-known problems, such as low-paying jobs and a lack of affordable rental accommodation. According to "a number of folks," "this winter is going to be a nightmare"

The Bonny Downs Community Association is based in the London borough of Newham, specifically in East Ham. After the benefits "uplift," many of the people it assists were forced to take out loans, which is "unsustainable, and our team are bracing themselves for a crisis moment after Christmas, when people will run out of stopgapps," according to David Mann, the organization's chair. "Landlords are now asking an increase of roughly £100 a month, which most people can't pay," he said, citing rising gasoline expenses. On top of that, she was paying an outrageous rent of £850 per month, leaving her with only £15 per month to cover necessities like food and clothing. His team was able to provide temporary housing for her, but she was still struggling to make ends meet. According to Mann, "she will not be able to cover her rent, and she will have no money for food, let alone clothing or transportation expenses" because of the reduction in universal credit benefits. Other topics that were discussed included persons who had been victimised by the asylum and immigration system and various services that had been overstretched: "Our debt advice centre is over capacity and we've had to cease taking bookings for the rest of this year." he said.

Five years after the Brexit referendum, there remains a widespread belief that the British people and their leaders are stuck in the past. As much as we love Brexity nostalgia and faux-imperial arrogance, the return of a form of poverty that feels eerily reminiscent of the late 1800s and early 1900s is an even more horrifying example.

In the midst of all the food bank coverage, one storey stood out for its vividness and poignancy. Johnson entertained Conservative Party contributors at the Victoria and Albert Museum's grimly appropriate winter party last Monday, only around 13 miles from East Ham. After paying more than £1,000 for their tickets, guests were treated to an auction at which Liz Truss was bought for £22,000 and Rishi Sunak was bought for £35,000. One of the reasons that Johnson's "everyone in this country" isn't what it appears to be is that poverty and all that comes with it aren't simply accepted, but actively pushed - even after all the horrors we've gone through.

x