The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on communities across the United Kingdom. We want to meet with a range of businesses from all sectors to fully grasp the challenges so many are facing. One sector which has provided vital support to many of those who have been hit hardest economically and financially, even before the onset of Covid-19, is the voluntary or third sector.
To understand more about the current strain on the third sector I hosted a virtual Community Forum where I was joined by senior representatives from charities across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Between them they provide lifeline services for people young and old, living in urban and rural communities, and facing issues such as extreme poverty, debt problems and homelessness.
What did I learn from our conversation?
All attendees agreed that this is just the beginning of the crisis for the third sector – and, more importantly, the people that rely on it.
A few used the phrase ‘a perfect storm’. They were referring to a looming crisis and the fact that the full impact of Covid-19 is yet to be felt. This is because there are still a lot of ‘hidden victims’ who haven’t yet reached out for help or support. They may have recently been made unemployed, face losing their job once the furlough scheme ends, or are yet to come to terms with the severity of their current financial situation. The charity leaders highlighted that there are a lot of low-income households that relied on a so-called ‘gig economy’ (e.g. short-term contracts or freelance work) that no longer exists.
It was also clear that Covid-19 has had a very uneven impact, but that the most vulnerable are always the most affected. Those that were struggling before Covid-19 have now been pushed to their very limit and many feel helpless.
The money and debt advice charities were anxious about what will happen when the various payment holidays for credit and rent come to an end. One debt charity mentioned that shops not accepting banknotes has had a big impact on those that rely on using cash to help with budgeting. They also noted that some people who were self-isolating had gone without basic groceries because they simply couldn’t afford the extra delivery charge.
Rural community representatives raised the digital divide as a major concern. Many don’t have access to basic broadband and connectivity. This has had an impact on the mental health of various communities, particularly older people, and has caused increased loneliness and isolation.
Covid-19 has highlighted that older people play a big role in supporting communities and carrying out volunteering duties. Now that most are self-isolating, the loss in support has been widely felt, especially by those in rural areas.
Rural businesses have been hard hit too. Many smaller community farms have diversified into tourism to generate income over the summer months to sustain their operations through the winter. That income has been lost this year and many of them are too small to meet the new social distancing measures so haven’t been able to operate even though lockdown measures have been eased.
We have heard a lot about how young people are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19, including from the Bank’s own Youth Forum, who I met with recently to discuss this issue.
At the Community Forum, one charity working with young homeless people was concerned about the amount of new crisis cases that will come to light when schools reopen in September. They thought this would be as a result of changes in family situations (unemployment, furlough etc.) or that children will have been spending more time in an abusive or volatile environment without knowing where to turn to for support.
For young people leaving school there was a fear about the lack of work experience and new job opportunities. The lack of footfall in areas like Canary Wharf in London has impacted areas such as nearby Tower Hamlets and has reduced the amount of available entry-level jobs, apprenticeships and support. This reminded me of the importance of the Bank’s own early careers programme and we are continuing to offer internships, apprenticeships and African-Caribbean scholarships.
Finally, we turned to the impact on the charities themselves.
Many were concerned that they will have significantly more to do with significantly less resource. This is due to funding cuts as well as a loss in private and corporate donations as a result of Covid-19. Some charities were concerned that, even if holding fundraising events becomes possible again in the near future, there will be a lack of confidence and reluctance from many to leave the house, so it will be a long time before the sector can fully start to rebuild their finances.
Although recent economic indicators have been more encouraging, we are under no illusion about the extent of the challenges faced in communities across the UK. Our latest Bank Overground article highlights the large declines in household income and spending of British households due to Covid-19. My discussions with third-sector leaders also reinforced the point that the road to recovery will be uneven and extremely tough for many.
We know we still have a long way to go. My reflections above merely touch on the topics raised during the call. I am very grateful to all the charity leaders for their contributions and know that all of us at the Bank will continue to engage with these groups through our Agencies network and Outreach programme.
The Community Forum included representatives from: Barnardo’s; Christians Against Poverty; Citizens’ Advice Scotland; Community Foundations UK; Community Foundation for Lancashire and Merseyside; Cornwall Community Foundation; DePaul UK; East End Community Foundation; First Love Foundation; Money Advice Trust; Northamptonshire Community Foundation; The Northern Ireland Housing Executive; Rural Services Network; and Wales Council for Voluntary Action.