How will post-Covid Britain look? For many, like it did in the brutal 19th century

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Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

While Boris Johnson talks of ‘building back better’, the reality is growing poverty and hunger – and a government that is fuelling them

In December 2019, Boris Johnson was electioneering in Salisbury, where he visited a butcher’s shop and local military veterans’ centre. The same city is also the home of the Trussell Trust, which runs the UK’s largest network of food banks – and Johnson was asked whether anything in the Conservative party’s manifesto might reduce the need for the kind of help it provides. He answered in the affirmative, claiming that helping people with living costs was a personal “crusade”, paying tribute to “everybody who gets involved with running food banks”, but also insisting that “it is wrong that people should be dependent on them”. He then mentioned “cutting national insurance for everyone”, before his punchline: “It is imperative in my view that the next government, if I’m lucky enough to be leading it, tackles the cost of living for everybody in this country. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Then as now, words just tumbled out of his mouth. We all know what happened to the national insurance promise, and if Johnson and his ministers had any credible intention of reducing living costs, any such hope has now been quashed. Instead we’ve had soaring energy bills, higher inflation and the cruel end of the £20-a-week universal credit “uplift” – partially mitigated via changes in the budget aimed at people in employment, but still a grim reality for the 3.4 million people on that benefit who are not in work.

But as worry spreads about the so-called Omicron variant of Covid, what millions of people face this winter is also part of another story. Three months after Johnson’s visit to Salisbury, the first lockdown saw an inspirational explosion of “mutual aid” and all those tributes to low-paid key workers – both of which, from an optimistic perspective, suggested public attitudes towards poverty and insecurity somewhat different from the mixture of indifference and old-fashioned moralism that we are often told form the views of a majority (“silent” or otherwise). For the briefest of moments, it felt as if the dawning realisation that being poor made people much more likely to suffer Covid-19’s worst effects might prompt at least the first stirrings of a political watershed. The footballer Marcus Rashford began campaigning on so-called “holiday hunger” in the summer of 2020, and not only forced two government U-turns, but breached the walls of daytime TV and the rightwing press. But now normal service seems to have been resumed.

Whatever fantasies are still being entertained about “building back better”, we are facing the latest stage of the Covid crisis in an even worse social state than when the whole thing began. Last Wednesday, the Trussell Trust released figures showing that although its provision of food parcels had come down from its peak in 2020, the latest figure is 11% higher than it was at the same point in 2019. Over the ensuing two years, the number of food parcels it supplies for children has increased at double the rate for adults. In the six months to the end of September, its staff and volunteers provided around 5,000 parcels each day, and the trust expects that figure to rise to 7,000 by Christmas. “Food banks in our network continue to see more and more people facing destitution,” said its chief executive, Emma Revie.

A few days ago, I spoke to people in charge of a handful of food banks, advice services and community organisations. The cut to universal credit, they told me, was causing gradually rising hunger, and there was a deep sense of foreboding about rising fuel prices. Moreover, things were much more difficult because grants from central government to food banks ceased in April, and the kind of ad hoc help symbolised by the £500m household support fund (hastily created by the government when anger about the universal credit cut was peaking, and somewhat optimistically intended as a one-off source of help “during the final stages of economic recovery”) was simply insufficient. “It looks like a lot of money on paper, but it’s going to go in an instant,” one chief executive of a food charity told me.

In Somerset, my local food bank is part of an organisation called Fair Frome. When I spoke to the people in charge, they said that compared to October, need already seems to be up by around a third. Help from the public, I was told, is as generous as ever: “If we do a shout-out for food, it arrives.” New volunteers came aboard at the height of the pandemic, and have stayed. But they are endlessly dealing with the symptoms of very familiar problems, such as poorly paid work (around 40% of the people who need food parcels have jobs), and a paucity of affordable rented housing. The upshot? “This winter is going to be a nightmare for a lot of people.”

The Bonny Downs Community Association does its work in the East Ham area of the London borough of Newham. Its chair, David Mann, told me that the end of the benefits “uplift” had pushed many of the people it helps into borrowing money, “but that’s unsustainable, and our team are bracing themselves for a crisis period after Christmas, when people will run out of stopgaps”. Because of the rise in fuel costs, he said, “landlords are now demanding an increase of about £100 a month, which most people can’t pay”. One woman his people were helping, he went on, was currently living in a converted shed owned by a rogue landlord, with a monthly rent of £850, which left her with about £15 a month to cover basic expenses such as food and clothes. “With the cut in universal credit,” Mann said, “she won’t be able to cover her rent, and she’ll have no money for food, let alone clothing or transport fares.” He also talked about people victimised by the asylum and immigration system who had no access to any help from the state at all, and many services the association provides that were now completely overstretched: “Our debt advice centre is at capacity and we’ve had to stop taking bookings for the rest of this year.”

Five years after the 2016 referendum, there is a common view of Britain and its ruling politicians being struck in the past. We tend to think of that condition in terms of Brexity nostalgia and faux-imperial arrogance, but the most appalling example of that failure to leave history behind is surely the return of a kind of poverty that often feels like some awful echo of the 19th century.

Amid all the news about food banks, one recent story made that point with a vividness worthy of a Dickens novel. Last Monday, only 13 or so miles from East Ham, Johnson entertained donors at the Conservatives’ fundraising winter party, held in the grimly appropriate setting of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Partygoers had paid more than £1,000 for their tickets, and were treated to an auction, at which £22,000 was successfully bid for a “karaoke session” with Liz Truss, and a game of cricket with Rishi Sunak came in at £35,000. Here, in a different universe from the one in which people go hungry, lies one reason why Johnson’s idea of “everybody in this country” is nothing of the kind, and why poverty and everything that comes with it are being not just tolerated, but actively increased – even after all the horrors we have been through.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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