Why we should take comfort in the community response to coronavirus

Kelly Grehan

While the government response to the pandemic could best be described as lacklustre in some places and disastrous in others, the same cannot be said for the community response. Way back in March, the government struggled to get to grips with the scale of the task; supermarkets shelves became empty and people found themselves unable to travel to their usual support networks. It was at this point that a community spirit, previously only known to most people through stories about the war, came forward.

We all recall how mutual aid groups quickly sprung up, people started shopping for neighbours and swapping things from the back of the cupboard. Restaurants and cafes, forced to close their doors with no idea when they would open, gave away their remaining stock to food banks, refuges, care homes. They helped to ensure that needs were met. There was beauty in the tragedy.

Then, in October, 322 Conservative MPs voted against a motion in parliament that called for the poorest children in the country to be given free school meal vouchers across the half-term holiday. As we all know, this was eventually retracted on – but not before Britain’s hospitality industry stepped up again, offering free food for children throughout the land. This was after those same businesses had incurred high labels of expense making their premises Covid-secure and struggling themselves with reduced custom.

One of the reasons that the government gave for taking so long to close schools was their concern for the welfare of children. On the face of it, this seems understandable. The thought of the 4.2 million children who are in poverty in the UK being at home without the five hot meals a week they usually get at school, maybe without heating and without devices to access remote learning, is truly awful. Sadly but not surprisingly, this rhetoric has not proven heartfelt, however.

This week, we learnt that the government had somehow decided that the best thing was not to give their parents of children who would have received a free hot meal at school vouchers, as they did in the previous lockdown, but to supply so-called ‘hampers’.

No official reason seems to have been given for this decision, but it’s fair to say that some Tories seem to think parents are not capable of spending food vouchers wisely. We are reminded of the comments of Tory MP Ben Bradley, who in October said “£20 cash direct to a crack den and brothel really sounds like way forward with this one. That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did …” This denigrating of people who are struggling is bad enough – it’s also highly inaccurate as often those on low incomes are the best budgeters.

By now, everyone is familiar with the photos of food supplied by profit-making companies to families with entitlement to free school meals. Some offered food that Asda would sell for a total of less than £6. Others contained items such as half a tomato, half a green pepper and some chicken with a use by date of today. You would be hard pressed to find a parent the length of the country who would go shopping with £30 and manage to make such a mess of buying a nutritious lunch.

We can only guess as to the emotional impact upon families receiving these dire parcels with the insinuation that this is what the state dems them worthy of. And I think part of the reason there is such anger over this scandal is that these ‘hampers’ are not just a betrayal of the people receiving them, but of all of us and the efforts we have all made to try to keep everyone safe.

It didn’t need to be like this. The free school meals vouchers could have been used as a way to ensure the dignity of every family struggling through this very bad time. It could have raised the self-esteem of families by being presented as a gift rather than another way of demeaning people.

It could also have been a way of helping to keep our local economies going. Imagine if the vouchers given to parents could have been used in any local food shop in their area instead of only the supermarket. Local butchers, greengrocers and bakers could have received the custom, too.

Or what about if local restaurants and cafes had been asked to supply meals to families? This could have been subject to conditions around nutrition, and the money could have then claimed back by the businesses like they did in Eat Out to Help Out. Maybe this would have cost the state more than a voucher, but nothing in comparison to the savings in the long term.

This could have kept people in jobs and ensured a hot meal each day for the children. Food could all be from local suppliers of good quality food. Local restaurants take pride in their food and would have ensured decent produce. Would the logistics of this be any harder than the government paying companies to buy food, pack it up and transport it to schools that then give it out to parents?

However hard things have been over the past ten months, we have at least been able to take comfort in how the community has stepped up – and it’s increasingly clear it is the community, not the government nor the market, that can support those who need it. If the government were to make decisions based on where the greatest good can be done, rather than with the greatest cynicism, maybe we would all be better off.

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