Millions of families across the UK are now not just facing a global pandemic but a very real economic crisis, according to the director of ecumenical Salford-based charity Church Action on Poverty.
Niall Cooper told The Tablet this week that one in five of the population experienced a loss of some or all of their income at the start of lockdown in March, “but the situation is destined to get far worse over the next few weeks, as one in eight workers who are still furloughed risk losing their jobs when the scheme finishes.” He warned: “We are now facing the grim prospect of a return to mass unemployment of the levels not seen for at least a quarter of a century.” He called on Chancellor Rishi Sunak “to introduce new measures to protect the jobs and livelihoods of millions of families across the UK.”
The furlough wage subsidy scheme has been a success but, with five weeks to run until the end of October, pressure is building for either an extension or a replacement with new forms of jobs and income support. Trade unions are warning of a “tsunami of job losses.” Launched in April, the scheme has helped more than nine million jobs.
Kevin Flanagan, director of St Antony’s Centre in Manchester, a member of the Caritas Social Action Network which focuses on the world of work, agrees that “we are seeing the biggest restructure of work since the 80s with lots of dedicated, hard-working employees being told they are redundant from the end of October.”
He told The Tablet this week: “We have 500 people on our books who have reduced work or are unemployed and I think we’ll be looking at 1,500 this side of Christmas.”
With furloughing coming to an end, many firms are laying off workers, and he has spoken to employers in the retail and hospitality sectors who are not anticipating bringing staff back this year. Some employees have been asked to take unpaid leave after furlough. Taxi drivers have found the bottom drop out of the market, especially now with the 10pm lockdown in many cities. Mr Flanagan said: “Anyone who believes that the world of work hasn’t changed with Covid-19 is living an illusion.”
For those in work, the workplace is more exposed and people feel they cannot take any time off. St Antony’s has had calls from people told that if they must accompany a family member for a Covid test then this must be taken as unpaid leave. He called for the government to “get a grip on testing” for people to be clear of the situation speedily in their families and communities. He felt it particularly worrying to see layoffs in local authorities where staff have been coordinating local Covid responses.
Mr Flanagan anticipates the Churches being “left holding the baby”, although he had no doubt they would step up. Speaking of St Antony’s, he said, “we have an obliging team, keen to serve people and we are always looking into new ways to support initiatives, especially with young people, and new ways of raising funds.” He is on record as regretting that the Bishops’ Conference no longer has a World of Work Committee within its structure to give more attention to this issue.
With chances of unemployment rates returning to their pre-March levels in the foreseeable future slim, and many families struggling to make ends meet, Church Action on Poverty is running a Challenge Poverty Week in England and Wales 12-18 October (Scotland is 5-11 October) to highlight the need to tackle grassroots poverty, to support community outreach groups “and to show what can and must be done differently”.