A Morrisons food parcel for two people for a week, photo by Philafrenzy/CC

A Morrisons food parcel for two people for a week, photo by Philafrenzy/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Siobhan Friel, charity worker

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Britain hard in March, national and local government have tried to pass their responsibilities onto the ‘third sector’ – charities and NGOs – to handle the fallout on vulnerable people.

In the initial lockdown stage, it became immediately clear that safe access to food and medication was going to be a serious challenge to large numbers of people. The entire population was instructed to stay home wherever possible, but those over 70 or with any underlying health conditions were told not to go out, even to collect essential supplies.

How, then, were those without nearby family and friends going to get food and medicine? The Tories took several steps to address this. Almost all of them involved charities, volunteers and community groups. The government has taken as little direct responsibility for provision of essential supplies as possible, and none of its steps have been able to meet the ongoing need.

As we now face the prospect of a second wave and the possibility of a second lockdown of sorts, the food crisis has only deepened. Months of furloughed workers and rising unemployment have meant a corresponding increase in demand on food banks.

Those who were vulnerable to Covid-19 in March are not any less vulnerable now. Going into crowded supermarkets presents a very real threat to their safety.

To fully understand the role of the third sector in the coronavirus crisis, we have to look right back to the beginning of lockdown. With confusion around the government’s ‘stay at home’ message, the Tories introduced three key measures for accessing essential supplies.

Emergency measures

First, Health Secretary Matt Hancock made a sensational announcement: a call to arms for healthy people who wanted to help fight this virus. The government asked for 250,000 volunteers for the NHS. These volunteers would be tasked with collecting and delivering shopping, prescriptions and food parcels to vulnerable people.

In response to Hancock’s call, more than 750,000 volunteered. They were to be activated via an app, through which community figures such as GPs, social workers and charity workers could find local volunteers and send them tasks for vulnerable people in the area.

This could have been an efficient stopgap in an emergency. The app finds a volunteer local to the vulnerable person, who can deliver supplies.

But a large part of the crisis was the need for food parcel delivery. The NHS volunteers were essentially a shopping and delivery service and did not have any access to food parcels.

They were well-intentioned of course, but not trained or accountable. They would not necessarily have known how to get access to food parcels. They could be contacted by a vulnerable person in need of urgent help, and be faced with the choice of doing nothing or paying for food themselves. This is to say nothing of other complex needs.

Despite billions upon billions found to bail out big business – following decades of swingeing cuts to council jobs and services – there was no move towards hiring, training and paying people to carry out these essential tasks either. However, the idea did at least show the government accepted the need for a planned, coordinated response – and had the potential to organise one.

Second, the NHS was to make a list of those people considered “clinically extremely vulnerable.” That’s those with serious respiratory illnesses, who have been recently treated for cancer, or had a recent organ transplant.

In March, the NHS advised 1.5 million people to stay at home. The 900,000 most vulnerable received a letter explaining that they needed to stay inside for 12 weeks, and they could receive food parcels.

This is by far the most direct action taken to address access to essential supplies by the government to date. It was at conception a centrally organised plan, utilising data held by the NHS, to ensure those in most need of support received it quickly. It gives a glimmer of insight into what even a Conservative government is capable of if the stakes are high enough.

But there were immense flaws in this scheme. It was limited, and in many cases failed to reach even the relatively small number who had been identified as extremely vulnerable.

It was never clearly explained to the public, and the only way to get a list of who did and did not qualify was to go to the government website and fill in an online application. For many people over 70, this is not a realistic prospect.

In addition, the government food parcel scheme ended in July, entirely without warning. This was either a suggestion that those individuals are now safe to get supplies for themselves, or a direct decision to hand all responsibility for even the most acutely vulnerable to the third sector. But those 1.5 million people had not become less vulnerable, nor has any other support system replaced the food parcels.

Third, the government assured the public that older and vulnerable people would get priority for online shopping and deliveries. What the Tories did not say was that this would be left entirely to supermarkets to organise themselves, and that they would have no accountability whatsoever.

Even today, online delivery slots are difficult to find, even for those who do have access to the internet. Supermarket phone lines were overwhelmed.

And the government did not mention that the only way to receive a high-priority slot – if you were even able to reach a supermarket on the phone – was to be on the NHS extremely vulnerable list. There are almost nine million over-70s alone in the UK. A maximum of 1.5 million people were on the list.

Essentially, isolated older people without nearby family had almost no options for safely accessing essential supplies, and none of the government support options could reach them. Many would have had no choice but to contact their GP or social worker – who could, theoretically, contact an NHS volunteer in turn to deliver their essential needs.

Charities swamped

Through April, before the NHS app went live, charities were swamped with panicked and confused older and vulnerable people. Why were they not receiving food parcels? How did they get food shopping if they could not go outside?

Like businesses, charities have running costs and income streams which are threatened by the pandemic. They also have targets which need to be met in order to maintain public grant funding.

In response to the lockdown, commissioning bodies across the country allowed charities to change their output to meet the emergency needs of the pandemic. Charities began setting up temporary food and shopping services, hoping to only need to bridge the gap until the NHS volunteers were activated.

As with all of this government’s pandemic measures, the reality of the NHS app did not tally with the press hype.

Of 750,000 applications, NHS Volunteer Responders accepted 600,000 volunteers. A month into its existence, the scheme had only logged 100,000 tasks. Clearly the majority of this phenomenal willingness to help was going unused.

The chief executive for Volunteering Matters, which helped coordinate the plan, said: “It’s not that volunteers aren’t wanted or needed. The reality is that the numbers of people has outweighed the need.”

That’s a nice thought. It would be great to imagine that so few people found themselves needing help getting essential supplies that were not already covered by government ‘support’. Unfortunately, it was simply not the case.

Mismatched demand

In the same time span that the NHS volunteers delivered to tens of thousands of people, several thousand informal community ‘mutual aid’ groups had linked up millions of local social media users. The demand was there.

The NHS volunteers were unable to respond because there was no organisation beyond the app itself. No one was given clear information as to how to get help from the willing NHS volunteers.

Government spending on just the first six months of this crisis is £210 billion according to the National Audit Office. Unemployment has skyrocketed to around three million people judging by benefit claims alone, and is set to rise again as the furlough scheme comes to an end in October.

The same need which faced vulnerable people in March remains today, only now all of the funding has been pulled back. Charities, just like businesses, are trying to return to normal.

This is not a criticism of workers and volunteers in the third sector. Many charities, especially local charities and voluntary community groups, are simply trying to answer a very real need unanswered by the private sector and state.

The NHS volunteers signed up because they sincerely wanted to do something to help. Local food banks appear because people in the area are going hungry. Homeless charities exist because homeless people exist. The vast majority of people who work for charities are just trying to do a job.

It’s the government’s use of the voluntary sector which is cynical. The NHS volunteers announcement was a box-ticking exercise. A way to appear to be taking decisive action, and supporting the people on the front lines, without cost – exactly like clapping for the NHS.

The Tories did not take the time or supply the resources necessary to organise properly. Even just ensuring there was a simple access point for people in need would have ensured that the 600,000 volunteers could actually be used and vulnerable people would have got the support they needed.

There has never been a time in our lifetimes when a publicly organised, planned and funded effort has been more clearly needed. We needed to know exactly how many people were in any category which required shielding, and to have one, accessible, and clear way for them to receive essential supplies.

Planning needed

A planned response, employing workers made jobless or who could not work in lockdown, with jobs protected and with no loss of pay, could have met that demand. It would have got people what they needed and the long-term economic damage to workers would have been significantly lessened.

Instead, the government instructed people to seek help from friends and family first, then local charity and community groups, before the state. In response, people volunteered and charities continued delivering essential supplies, each working in their own local bubble; no coordination or long-term plan, and no government accountability of any kind.

There was little or no coordination with local government either, which has the local knowledge to make the scheme work. Some councils set up local schemes, but up and down the country councils have refused to stand up to Tory cuts for a decade. Rather than at last launching a fight for the resources they need, councils also established underfunded and uncoordinated structures.

And what say did volunteers, service users, or indeed workers in the sector, have over how the scheme operated? Their input could have prevented many of these problems. As well as central and local coordination and full public funding, the most effective system would be controlled democratically by workers and service users.

Charities try to treat symptoms. They do not address causes, or they attempt to do so in an ‘apolitical’ and hence partial way.

Capitalist governments, in effect, commandeer well-intentioned charitable organisations and make them part of their anti-worker system, like they have done with food banks. This saves governments money – money which comes disproportionately from the instinctive solidarity of workers and the poor – and yet massive cuts to jobs and services continue.

There is absolutely a place for volunteering in society. Organised volunteering for a specific cause is often vital to change. But under capitalism, the third sector – which at its top end can often include ruthless chief executives on bloated salaries – is also used as a cover for the social negligence of the state.

Even the welfare state was not conceived as a way of stopping the cause of social problems, but as a safety net. It was meant to ensure that healthcare, education and some basic needs were considered the responsibility of the state, not the individual.

Charities can act as a cover for local and national government abdicating that responsibility, but with even less accountability. The support offered by a charity is not considered anybody’s guaranteed right to receive. And charity bosses are not subject to any kind of public election.

Socialists say all people have a right to access food, medicine, essential supplies, and a safe and decent standard of living. In a time of profound crisis, the government has shown the potential for a coordinated, fully funded, public effort to protect vulnerable people.

The Tories have refused to deliver it, or even ensure the most fundamental needs can be reliably met. They fear what this could suggest to people about how society might be organised differently. So with a second wave on the horizon, the Tories are only drawing back even further from direct intervention, while the need increases and grows ever more complex.

Fight for resources

Huge numbers of vulnerable people have self-isolated for more than five months. There is a growing mental health crisis alongside material needs. Unless there is a fight for more resources, this too will be answered by voluntary organisations or not at all, because there will be no other options. Food banks will find ways to meet the growing demand or some of those in need will go hungry.

Charity and volunteering may mask the failings of government, but of course working-class people instinctively want to help. It is ironic that the same capitalist politicians who rely on this reality to cover their shortcomings insist that self-interest is what motivates people, and that we are fundamentally too greedy for socialism. The disconnect between the government’s promises on volunteering and the real experience of workers, volunteers and service users may actually expose the situation all the more.

The coronavirus pandemic has given us a glimpse of the state’s capability to organise. In just a few days, it was able to promise a nationwide furlough scheme, with business grants, loans and bailouts. At the beginning of the crisis, it was able to offer shelter to every homeless person in the country.

Now more than ever, we have seen that both the money and the means exist to meet the basic needs of all. The unions should demand that the government and councils take full responsibility for provision, and create secure, well-paid and fully funded public jobs to do it. But more than that, the holes and inefficiency of the private and third sectors, and the capitalist politicians and state, make the case for socialism.