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“It’s like an ordinary day, to be honest”: How the cuts stole Christmas

As foodbanks stockpile and benefits are withheld, Britain faces crisis this festive season.

Misted with condensation, the Hub @75 is sandwiched between a fried chicken shop and a pharmacy on a small high street in west London’s White City. The shop fronts make up the ground floor of a redbrick low-rise block of flats, nestled in the area’s warren of council estates, modern developments and rows of houses.

Rain slaps down on the pavement as multiple people walk in and out of the Hub – it’s a foodbank drop-in, so visitors enter for everything from a chat over a cup of tea to an emergency parcel of food that will feed them and their family for the next three days.

The centre is run by the Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank charity, and open six days a week. This wet afternoon, people sip soup or eat slices of cake at the smattering of tables in the brightly-lit, cramped front room as the six volunteers give advice and put boxes of donations together.

“There is no other way of surviving”

Other visitors sit at a bank of computers along the back wall. There are IT and employment workshops here as well as law and housing advice, cookery classes and board game and knitting afternoons.

The number of people who come in is rising, as it is across the country according to the anti-poverty charity Trussell Trust’s foodbank network. This financial year, the Hub has given the equivalent of 66,000 meals to 6,650 recipients – up from 6,050 last financial year.

Christmas food to be restocked at a food bank. Photo: Getty

But you don’t need stats to see this is an overstretched operation. In the office behind the main room, no surface is left empty – the manager’s desk, cabinets and fold-out chairs host a portable hob, bottles of vegetable oil, crumpled stacked boxes of Scrabble, Draughts and other games, clear plastic boxes filled with honey, mince pies, more cooking oil, and three boxes contain sewing machines. An enormous printer towers over proceedings in the back left corner.

“They’re making all these houses, but not for us”

Daphine Aikens, who founded this charity in 2010, is sitting at the desk, fielding constant texts and questions from volunteers who pop their heads round the door. She wears tortoiseshell glasses and a stripy scarf over her grey jumper. A hat and gloves dry out on the radiator opposite. December sees people coming in for warmth as well as food.

“We used to be very much more of a crisis service – you’d see somebody two or three times,” she tells me, looking up data about visitors on the desktop.

“Whereas now, it’s like we’ve seen you coming in for ten weeks. Because actually they’ve got no money coming in, and no other way of surviving without three days’ worth of food coming in from the food bank.”

Cutting Christmas

Nursing a cup of tea at a table by the window, Maurice Ephraim is in today because he’s homeless. He slept on the steps of a nearby housing block last night. The 63-year-old was evicted from his flat eight years ago, and has stayed with friends, sofa-surfed and slept rough ever since – remaining in this borough, where he has always lived, near his mother and ten children.

“The government is not doing enough to help homeless people,” he says. “They’re making all these houses, but not for us. What’re we getting out of it? It doesn’t make me very happy.”

“Christmas isn’t the same anymore”

Regeneration in this part of the capital has been patchy, with a 2009 study by the LSE finding White City to be one of the “most deprived areas of the whole country”.

Part of the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, pockets like this are often overshadowed by the wealth of neighbouring areas (affluent Holland Park is just two stops away on the Central Line). Locals like Ephraim, who worked as a machine operator for 36 years, are overlooked.

A tube departs White City station. Photo: Getty

Ephraim is on pre-Universal Credit benefits, but finds the money “does not stretch as far” as it used to with “prices going up every time, and they do not come down, they stay up”. He will have Christmas dinner this year at the town hall, which hosts lunch for residents over 60. “Christmas isn’t the same anymore,” he tells me. “It’s like an ordinary day, to be honest.”

“Universal Credit held everything back – rent, food”

Searching through job listings on a computer in the corner, 48-year-old Ian has been unemployed for a year. He was a shift engineer in the hotel industry and wants to get back into work; he is now on Universal Credit – the new benefits system that is being rolled out nationally. “The first thing I did [when I lost my job] was sign on, on the Monday,” he tells me. “The frustration I had is you’ve got to wait.”

Ian waited nine weeks for his benefits to come in. “It’s frustrating, it held everything back – rent, and then I had to get food vouchers for the food here,” he tells me. He has a son in his twenties and will be spending Christmas with family – but it feels different this year, without money. “Christmas is only one day,” he sighs, turning back to the screen.

Universally challenged

Aikens says “a lot” of the reason why she has so many more clients than last year is to do with the “long wait for Universal Credit”.

With an initial six-week inbuilt delay to payments, revised down to five weeks starting next year, people who rely on benefits are being left in the lurch for long stretches – and have no money to eat. Foodbanks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout have seen a 16.85 per cent increase in referrals (more than double the national average), the Trussell Trust calculates.

Lists of food to check off at the food bank. Photo: Getty

Advance payments, which are upfront loans that you pay back via a reduction in your monthly benefits, are available under Universal Credit if you can’t get through the waiting period. But many are still left uninformed by the Jobcentre that this back-up support is available.

Out of house and home

These problems have led to some anti-poverty campaigners and the Labour party calling for Universal Credit’s rollout to be paused and fixed, so it works the best it can for claimants – tens of thousands of whom will have to take out loans to have any money over Christmas.

“I know Christmas is about family, really, it’s not about presents and stuff like that, but it’s for the kids – the advance payment stuff definitely doesn’t help with that; it just covers your needs to live,” says Joe Coker, who is crowdfunding money via GoFundMe for his brother, whose family has just been moved to temporary accommodation hundreds of miles from home due to Universal Credit withholding their housing benefit.

“The main thing is the kids; this hurts them”

Coker wants them to be able to “go back home for the festive period” and give his two nephews, who are six and seven, “the Christmas they deserve”.

“It’s despicable, really,” he tells me. “The main thing is the kids; this hurts them. Later on in life, they’ll look back and remember these sorts of things. It’s a mental scarring the government doesn’t seem to see; they’re just a number on a piece of paper.”

Under the old system, housing benefit was paid straight to the landlord, whereas Universal Credit pays claimants directly. This means the payment delay leaves many without rent and vulnerable to eviction.

One woman I speak to – Mary*, 39, who works two jobs and has a seven-year-old daughter – faces eviction and has no idea where she will be housed next. This is because of a mistake in the system when she moved over to Universal Credit (which is notorious for glitches and delays) in September, which left her without rent.

“I don’t know where the council’s going to take me”

“Six weeks passed [after I applied] and nothing happened,” she tells me over the phone. “I started contacting them, checking my [online] journal – still delayed. I wasn’t qualified for an advance payment as I was working.”

Eventually, she received her first payment, which was only £171. The £900 of rent she required was nowhere to be seen. She was taken to court by her landlord, she lost both her jobs, and is evicted a week after we speak. “I don’t know where the council’s going to take me to,” she says. “I haven’t got time to help my daughter with her homework; I can’t even take my daughter out.”

Protesters demonstrate against welfare reform in Whitehall. Photo: Getty

She says Universal Credit is “more than worse” than the old system: she receives less money, and has calculated that it costs her more to work. “Under child tax credits and housing benefit, it encouraged me to work, I had time to look after my daughter and some money at the end of the month.”

Families with children have lost out more than any other group from the welfare reform, as the new system is less generous than the last according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The government’s welfare cap has meant freezing benefits, which has led to a real-terms cut. This makes the festive season particularly tough, even if you have Universal Credit coming in.

“They’re hitting people they should be helping”

“The Christmas period has obviously more financial pressure,” says Sumi Rabindrakumar, a research officer at the single parent charity Gingerbread. “There’s not going to be much let-up. Universal Credit for single parents is much less generous than the previous system.”

Single parents on average lose around 7 per cent – about £1,300 of their income – under Universal Credit, according to the charity’s research. “They’re hitting the people that Universal Credit should be helping – working, low-income families,” adds Rabindrakumar.

A pile of Christmas selection boxes at a food bank. Photo: Getty

The Hub has been stockpiling Christmas gifts as well as food for weeks, with donations from companies and individuals. From hats and gloves and Lynx bodycare sets to books, jewellery and perfume to big boxes of Lego and dolls’ houses, the Hub’s store room is peppered with treats as well as its usual crates of rice and tinned tomatoes.

“Just any little thing we can do to help make this period a little bit easier for people,” says Aikens, showing me the volunteers putting food parcels together.

With their allocated ingredients for ten balanced meals, visitors can also choose between tea and coffee, two toiletries (out of toothpaste, deodorant, soap and razors), and get one toilet roll each. And this month, piles of advent calendars and colouring books perch on a table at the end of the storeroom, ready for Christmas. But they feel like the sign of a country in crisis, rather than poised for celebration.

*This name has been changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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“They are leaving at an alarming rate”: European NHS workers on the winter crisis, austerity, and Brexit’s impact

“It’s a house of cards, and we’re getting closer and closer to the point where it’s all going to collapse.”

This winter, for the first time in five years, Joan Pons Laplana, an NHS project manager and transformation nurse from Norfolk, “went back to working the front line” because his hospital “had no nurses”. As was the case in many other NHS hospitals nationwide, wards were closed, non-urgent appointments and operations cancelled, and their resources focused on A&E.

“We managed to put a plaster to stop the crisis, but now we need to catch up with the patients and operations and everything,” he says. “And that's like a catch-22.” NHS England recommends a working capacity of around 85 per cent in hospitals to absorb the winter’s patients rise, but Pons Laplana’s hospital is “constantly” working at 90 per cent, he says. “It’s a high stress environment, constantly low on resources and doctors. And now we don't have enough staff.” He sighs: “It’s getting more and more difficult to deliver safe care. At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”

Originally from Barcelona, Pons Laplana has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years. He is one of around 62,000 EU citizens who currently work for the National Health Service, according to House of Commons statistics. Amid the winter crisis and severe financial pressure, the NHS’s next big problem is already unfolding: the prospect of Brexit is driving European NHS workers away. Within England’s NHS services, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors, more than 7 per cent of nurses and 5 per cent of scientific, therapeutic and technical staff. Almost 10,000 EU workers had already left the NHS when NHS Digital released its 2017 data last autumn.

“If none of the EU citizens were [in my hospital], I can say without any exaggeration: you could absolutely close tomorrow”, Dr Peter Bauer, 47, a consultant anaesthetist in a Brighton hospital who has worked in the NHS since 1999, tells the New Statesman. In his hospital, he says, the proportion of EU staff is “phenomenal”: “Well over 50 per cent of senior staff is European, it’s about three quarters of the people. It would be disaster.” Mary, a 37-year-old British nurse from London, says her clinic, which employs many Europeans, is struggling to find a cover for her colleague on maternity leave: “Recruitment has fallen massively since Brexit.” With the British government still unclear on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely to stop there.

The ability of competent, skilled European staff to move seamlessly to the UK from the continent, thanks to the EU's freedom of movement, has been “a boom for the NHS”, Bauer says. Recruiting elsewhere (something the NHS has already started doing) will bring additional costs, visa requirements and various other complications that freedom of movement was designed to avoid. “You need these people! If you can't recruit Europeans, you then have to go out of the EU, and it's much more costly and difficult. It's a house of cards, and we're getting closer and closer to the point where it's all going to collapse.”

“If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap.”
Peter Bauer, consultant anaesthetist, originally from Germany

Recruitment from European countries has fallen rapidly. For instance, the number of incoming EU nurses fell by 92 per cent after the referendum, contributing to a shortfall in those able to fill the 24,000 nurse vacancies in England alone.

“For the first time, we have seen a reduction in the pool of EU citizens working for the NHS, and that is critical”, says Bauer, who teaches at medical school and has observed the “mismatch of numbers” in terms of graduates – especially a lack of British graduates. “If you want to fill the increased demand with British graduates, you would have to hugely enhance the capacity of British universities to train doctors, and then you would have to put them through specialty training, and that would take decades.”  It takes “about fifteen years” to train an anaesthetist like himself. He laughs: “If EU citizens like myself decide to go, it would take about 4,200 years to close the gap!” Mary, the British nurse, agrees: “Come 2020, we're going to be in serious, massive crap.”

Jettie Vije, a Dutch national who works as a GP practice nurse in Norfolk, meets the “occasional old patient” wanting to discuss Brexit: “They say, ‘Isn’t it great that we’re leaving the EU?’” Vije has been in the UK for four years, which is less than the five-year threshold for settled status; so “great” may not be the best word to describe her situation “I try to keep it on the medical side and not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not”, she says. “I am here to do my job as a nurse.”

“I try not to discuss whether leaving the EU is good or not. I am here to do my job as a nurse.”
Jettie Vije, GP practice nurse, originally from the Netherlands

Every EU citizen in the UK knows others who have left. “On a daily basis, I can see that people are leaving”, Pons Laplana says. Portuguese workers at his hospital are “leaving at an alarming rate”. An Italian colleague of Bauer’s is applying to a job in France (“He is probably going to be gone very soon” ); another one, a Czech colleague, has gone part-time, working four weeks in Czech Republic and four in the UK. “The direction isn't for people to be drawn into the UK”, Bauer says.

Mary, the nurse from London, works with colleagues from all over Europe, from Spain and Portugal to Romania and Poland. “Just hearing the conversations they have...  They feel they're not welcome here anymore,” she says, citing one who just moved to Ireland. “Despite what we say and how much we appreciate them, it really doesn't matter” she says. “They're nervous, so a lot of them are leaving.”

The ones who stay behind aren't just losing friends and colleagues to a political decision in which they had no say. Like every Briton, they are attached to their life in the UK as they know it, and to one of its greatest pillars: their employer and health care provider, the National Health Service. As the recent winter crisis has made years of under-funding more apparent and more critical, just like Brits, they worry the NHS may not recover.

European workers have been part of the NHS and British life for years – in Bauer’s case, decades – and have witnessed different government policies. When Bauer arrived in the 1990s, Tony Blair had just taken office: “Over the first ten years, you could see how pumping money into the NHS was leading to a huge increase in the capacity”, he says. There were “more beds, more nurses and doctors”, and small things, too – like “more hand washing basins”. “As the coalition government, and then Cameron, took power, you could see how the investment was scaled back”, he adds.

The NHS is already in dire straits due to the financial pressures exacerbated by austerity. Last September, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, estimated in the Guardian that the Health Service needed an emergency investment of £200m to £350m to avoid a winter crisis. It didn’t come – and non-emergency procedures were cancelled across the country in January. That shortfall is only the start however, and by 2020, the NHS will face a £20 billion funding gap. The Conservative manifesto pledge of an extra £8bn is considered by leading health think tanks and experts to be inadequate. Inflation and demand, which Bauer says “keep rising”, are deepening the gap.

“At the moment, we’re playing Russian roulette.”
Joan Pons Laplana, NHS project manager, originally from Spain

“When the demand is a lot higher than the funding, then there is a gap and that gap is getting wider and wider each year. That's what provoked the crisis,” says Pons Laplana, who has seen stress in his wards go “though the roof” with the pressures. “I reckon 50 of the team have been off at some point because of the stress”, says Mary, who had to take two weeks off around Christmas because she works in a department that treats life-threatening conditions and it all became too much. “We are GPs, we are counsellors, we are social workers... We're everything at the moment.” To add to the stress, the lack of funding and the nurses’ pay cap are making situations like Mary’s more precarious: she says she had to remortgage her house to pay for a £10,000 training that may allow her to be promoted. “To be able to make ends meet, a lot of the staff do extra shifts, some are working fifty hours to have the same quality of life that they had five, six, seven years ago, and pay the mortgages”, Pons Laplana explains. “But a lot of us are getting tired. Tired people make mistakes. And mistakes cost lives.”

These problems would exist without Brexit, but the decision to leave the EU will exacerbate the health services's problems in ways beyond simply driving workers away. The famed “£350m a week for the NHS” pledge wheeled out by the Leave campaign is credited with helping to win the election, but the drop in value of the pound and economic uncertainty mean that, as Bauer points out, “in actual numbers you're seeing so far a reduction of £350m a week” – less cash in the economy is likely to mean less cash for the NHS.

Mary says she is “immensely worried” about the possibility of the British government selling NHS contracts in a future US trade deal struck to make up for lost trade with the EU: “The essence of what the NHS is, care for all, that will go and the thought of that scares me to the bone.” Brexit, Bauer says, is an “unmitigated disaster”: not just because urgent issues like the NHS’ winter crisis are being overlooked by the “completely paralysed” government’s obsession with the UK’s departure from the European Union, but also because it will exacerbate such issues further. The Home Office’s tightening of migration rules will make it harder for the Health Service to hire critically needed staff, he sighs: “It's one more dimension of self-harm on Brexit.”

“EU workers are leaving at an alarming rate”
Joan Pons Laplana

For the EU citizens who are still here, the dilemma is twofold. Leave, because Brexit has made their future and right to work in this country uncertain? Or stay to see the Health Service they have put so much work in fall into pieces? “I worked very hard for three years to be in the managerial position I have,” Pons Laplana says. “If I go back, I will not have the same job. My home is here. My heart is British.” Vije doesn’t think it will come to her leaving, but until the deal is finalized, she cannot be certain: “I'm just waiting and watching.” Although Bauer doesn’t want to leave either, he has started on his contingency plan: getting German passports for his children. “I don't see a rosy economic future for them in the UK”, he says. “Britain is so divided now, the government is divided, the Tories are divided, Labour is divided, families are divided.” 

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” may work as far as the government’s negotiating strategy goes, but it also means EU workers are left in limbo. At a time when the NHS desperately needs staff, if the “really well trained, hard workers, well-educated” EU nurses and doctors to change their mind and go, they will be sorely missed, Mary says. “But then I think, what would I do?” She pauses. “Probably the same.”

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.