Written by Rebecca Barlow-Noone, a student on the MSc Population Health programme.
During the pandemic, inequalities in the UK have been brought into sharp relief with a rapid rise in food and fuel poverty, which I documented last year and have seen first-hand as a volunteer for Lambeth Foodbanks. Yet with fuel price caps set to skyrocket in the coming months and no plans to protect those on low incomes, it is likely to push even more people below the poverty line, forcing many to decide whether to ‘heat or eat’.
Foodbanks during the pandemic
Compared to 5 years ago, Trussell Trust food bank demand has increased 128%. Between April 2020 and March 2021, 2.5 million emergency food parcels were delivered in the UK by the Trussell Trust, representing a 33% increase from the previous pre-pandemic year. Furthermore, in December 2020, high levels of child food poverty in London led to additional food parcel distributions by UNICEF. This is despite the £20 per week Universal Credit (UC) uplift introduced in March 2020 in response to the pandemic.
The effect of Universal Credit cuts, energy price hikes, and inflation
As winter approached in late 2021, people on UC saw the tightest squeeze yet. The benefits uplift was cut, leaving recipients £1,040 per year worse off; prepayment energy tariffs saw the highest price increase of £153 to £1309 per year, which is used more by those on low incomes than high incomes; and inflation hit a 10-year high. While a taper rate of UC was implemented shortly after the uplift was cut, this only benefitted claimants who were already in work, and did not apply to people receiving legacy benefits.
I am deeply concerned how rising fuel costs this April will affect those already feeling the effects of the cut and price cap increase. When speaking to clients, I often hear how hard it is to make ends meet. I hear from parents forgoing meals for the sake of their children, and elderly clients unable to pay the higher energy bills through the winter. This is only set to get worse, with Age UK estimating that fuel poverty in the elderly may reach over 150,000 without financial protection this spring. It is unacceptable for people to be treated so poorly in a wealthy society such as the UK, at a time when they need the most support.
As costs of living increase for all, now is the time to increase support for those whose incomes at current UC rates do not allow for basic standards of living. Foodbanks across the UK represent an important lifeline, but this cannot be considered the norm and should not be relied upon by Government. The current rise in food bank reliance and the impending rise in fuel costs demands scrutiny into the social policies that are failing to adequately support those in need, to ensure those at most risk are protected from the increasing fuel price cap.