While the government’s response to the pandemic can best be described as lackluster in some places and disastrous in others, the same cannot be said for the community’s response. As early as March, the government struggled to get the scale of the task under control. The shelves of supermarkets became empty and people could no longer travel to their usual support networks. At this point in time a community spirit emerged that most people had previously only known through war stories.
We all remember how quickly aid groups came up, people started looking for neighbors and swapping things from the back of the closet. Restaurants and cafes that were forced to close their doors without knowing when they would open gave their leftovers to food banks, shelters and nursing homes. You helped ensure that the needs were met. There was beauty in tragedy.
Then, in October, 322 Conservative MPs voted against a motion in parliament requiring the country’s poorest children to receive free school lunch vouchers during mid-term holidays. As we all know, this was eventually withdrawn – but not before the UK hospitality industry rose again, offering free groceries to children across the country. This came after the same companies incurred high costs to make their premises Covid-proof and to struggle with reduced habits.
One of the reasons the government took so long to close schools was because of their concern for the well-being of the children. At first glance, this seems understandable. The thought that the 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK are at home without the five hot meals a week they normally get at school, perhaps with no heating and no distance-learning equipment, is truly terrible . Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this rhetoric has not turned out to be heartfelt.
This week we learned that the government had somehow decided that the best thing was not to give parents of children who, as in the previous lockdown, received a free hot meal on school vouchers, but so called “disabled”.
No official reason for this decision seems to have been given, but it is fair to say that some Tories seem to believe that parents are unable to use meal vouchers wisely. We are reminded of the comments made by Tory MP Ben Bradley, who said in October, “£ 20 cash straight into a crack den and brothel really does sound like a way forward. That is what FSM Coupons did effectively over the summer… “This denigration of people who have problems is bad enough – it’s also very imprecise, as those on low incomes are often the best budgeters.
Everyone is now familiar with the photos of groceries being delivered by profitable companies to families who are entitled to free school meals. Some offered food that Asda would sell for less than £ 6 in total. Others contained items like half a tomato, half a green pepper, and some chicken with a use date of today. You would be hard pressed to find a parent the length of the country who could shop for £ 30 and manage to buy a nutritious lunch.
We can only guess the emotional impact on families receiving these awful packages by suggesting that the state will make them worthy of them. And I think part of the reason people are angry about this scandal is that these “obstacles” are not just a betrayal of the people who receive them, but of all of us and the efforts we have all made to to protect everyone.
It didn’t have to be like that. The free school meal vouchers could have been used to ensure the dignity of any family who is at this very bad time. It could have boosted families’ self-esteem by presenting it as a gift rather than another way of humiliating people.
It could also have helped keep our local economy going. Imagine if the coupons that were given to parents could be used at a local grocery store near them instead of just the supermarket. Local butchers, greengrocers and bakers could also have preserved the custom.
Or what if local restaurants and cafes were asked to provide meals to families? This could have been made contingent on dietary conditions and the money could then have been reclaimed from the companies, as they did in Eat Out to Help Out. Perhaps this would have cost the state more than a voucher, but nothing compared to the long-term savings.
This could have kept people in jobs and provided the children with a hot meal every day. Food could all come from local suppliers of good quality food. Local restaurants pride themselves on their food and would have provided decent produce. Would the logistics for this be more difficult than the government-paid companies to buy, pack and transport groceries to schools, which then pass them on to the parents?
As difficult as the last ten months have been, we have at least been able to comfort ourselves with how the community has evolved – and it is becoming increasingly clear that the community, not the government or the market, can support those who need it. If the government made decisions based on where the greatest good can be done, rather than the greatest cynicism, we might all be better off.
Do you appreciate our free and unique service?
LabourList has more readers than ever before – but we need your help. Our dedicated coverage of Labor policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections is based on donations from our readers.