Poorest families could be forced to choose between heating and eating

London Letter: A cost-of-living crisis is looming and Sunak is ignoring the warnings

Empty supermarket shelves, London. Retailers, manufacturers and food suppliers have reported disruptions due to a shortage of truck drivers linked to the pandemic and Britain’s departure from the EU. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP Photo

Empty supermarket shelves, London. Retailers, manufacturers and food suppliers have reported disruptions due to a shortage of truck drivers linked to the pandemic and Britain’s departure from the EU. Photograph: Frank Augstein/AP Photo

 

The black cab was already purring outside when I came downstairs but when when he rolled down the window, the driver looked deflated.

“I only took this job because I thought it was Michael Portillo. He lives around here,” he said.

I said I was sorry to disappoint him and slid far back into the seat, savouring the couple of metres of chassis and the thick pane of glass between us. He said he had given up taking jobs from the taxi-hailing app because the firm took a cut and he didn’t need the work anymore.

“It’s like the ’90s. People are sticking their arms out on the street again,” he said.

Business has been so good for the past few weeks that London’s cabbies have given up their usual grumbling in favour of gloating over the abrupt turn in their fortunes. The only problem is the current fuel shortages which have left filling stations empty across Britain amid panic buying following the government’s call on the public not to panic.

The Portillo admirer said he needed about £30 of fuel a day to keep going and he had spent hours the previous day looking for it. In the big filling stations, stewards direct cars into lanes, each with a pump at the end. The trouble starts when one of the pumps runs out and the stewards try to merge the queue from one lane into another.

“The amount of aggression there is terrible. I nearly got into a fight myself,” he said.

There is, as the government repeats every day, plenty of fuel in Britain but there are not enough heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers to supply the filling stations. The government has agreed to issue 5,000 three-month visas to HGV drivers from Europe, along with the 5,000 they have issued for poultry workers.

There are reports of empty shelves in supermarkets but in our local Sainsburys there was produce on every shelf, even if some of it was scattered sparsely across the surface. On the way back, I saw a wet paint sign in the window of a little Spanish restaurant that has been closed all year and I put my head inside the door to say hello to the genial Galician who runs it.

No staff

He said he couldn’t reopen until now because he had no staff but with the furlough scheme gone from October 1st, some of them have come back. The others decided to stay in Spain because the pay was all right and the quality of life was better. Besides, he said, they felt like second-class citizens here.

“In London. Can you imagine? London,” he said.

Restaurants all over London are packed (“it’s like Christmas every week” he said) but many are struggling not only for staff but for supplies. A local Italian said they have to change the menu every few days because they run out of staples like burrata.

“It’s impossible. Water. You can’t get the water you want,” the Galician said.

Some Spanish suppliers have given up exporting to Britain and some perishable goods arrive so late they are no longer usable. When it reopens, the Spanish restaurant will no longer serve lunch, just dinner five or six nights a week.

But the boss thinks they’ll be gone by the end of the year, driven out by high rents and business rates that add up to more than £2,000 (€2,300) a week. That’s before he pays staff, utility bills or tax.

Other coronavirus supports are ending along with the furlough scheme, including a business rates freeze and VAT deferrals. But the change that will hurt the poorest hardest is the withdrawal of a £20 a week uplift in universal credit, a benefit claimed by more than five million people in England alone, many of them working in low-wage jobs.

Chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak has ignored warnings that, with gas prices soaring and a cost-of-living crisis looming, the poorest families could be forced to choose between heating and eating. The day before the cut comes into force on Friday, Sunak announced a £500 million emergency scheme for local authorities to support the poorest families through the winter.

Inadequate

As MPs, including Conservatives, dismissed the scheme as inadequate, Joseph Rowntree Foundation deputy director Helen Barnard said it showed that the chancellor knew how much hurt his benefit would lead to.

“The support available through this fund is provided on a discretionary basis to families facing emergency situations. It does not come close to meeting the scale of the challenge facing millions families on low incomes as a cost-of-living crisis looms and our social security system is cut down to inadequate levels,” she said.

“By admitting today that families will need to apply for emergency grants to meet the cost of basics like food and heating through winter, it’s clear the chancellor knows the damage the cut to universal credit will cause.”

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