The latest grim batch of employment figures, released on Tuesday by the Office for National Statistics, confirms the scale of the cumulative economic misery unleashed by Covid-19. From July to September, a record 314,000 people lost their jobs, as the government’s furlough scheme became less generous and employers felt the squeeze. That was an increase of 181,000 on the previous quarter, also a record. Early estimates suggest a further cull of 33,000 employees in October.
The predicament of those out of work is deepened by a vertiginous drop in vacancies, as businesses retrench and look to tough out the second wave of the pandemic. Adverts for jobs paying the minimum wage are attracting hundreds of desperate applicants.
Against this bleak backdrop, the local food bank has become the most vital institution in many people’s lives. In October, the Guardian followed the work of the Welcome Centre food bank in Huddersfield, which during the month gave almost 30,000 meals to people in need. An unprecedented number were first-time visitors, casualties of a turn of events that saw them fall straight through the supposed safety net provided by welfare benefits.
There were stories of precarity and vulnerability that were exacerbated by the pandemic but, in many cases, predated it. The cost of repairing a broken fridge or a cancelled shift had turned lives upside down, sparking a cycle of debt. The notorious lag in payments to new universal credit applicants has prompted the Welcome Centre to develop a five-week food pack to keep people going. A family of six had struggled in June when one parent lost their job, and again this autumn when their partner contracted Covid. Many users are embarrassed and bewildered to be there.
The ongoing work of volunteers in food banks such as these, and the generous contributions from individuals and businesses that keep them going, are filling a gap where the state should be. During the October school half-term, when donations provided the free school meals that the government had refused to fund, Marcus Rashford tweeted: “Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know.” But the fifth-largest economy in the world should not be relying on volunteers and charity to save people from destitution.
At the weekend, as the world focused on events in America, Boris Johnson U-turned for a second time on free school meals, bowing to Mr Rashford’s demands for greater food support for the poor throughout the winter and during holidays. Such concessions are welcome, but seem to come about only as a result of intense pressure and lobbying. Many struggling families will not be eligible for the new support and will continue to require places like the Welcome Centre. A change of mindset is required, or, more accurately, a change of heart. The state has a moral duty to ensure that admirable organisations like this do not need to exist.