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Homelessness charity says it has ‘never witnessed a more distressing situation’ than during coronavirus crisis

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Trafalgar Square at night is silent and almost empty, the usual crowds of noisy tourists visiting London replaced by clusters of homeless people, who wait on the steps of the National Gallery for food to be distributed. But these are not all long-term rough sleepers: central London is seeing a surge of newly unemployed restaurant and pub workers forced to sleep on the streets because they can no longer afford to pay rent.

Rough sleepers like Martin, a recently-sacked chef from Poland, are finding life under lockdown increasingly difficult and dangerous. “London has become so strange and sad. The only people who are out look like they are looking for drugs. There are a lot of crazy people with knives,” he said.

The city’s day centres have been closed to prevent the transmission of the virus, leaving the homeless with no place to shower or wash their clothes, no toilets and nowhere to access regular food supplies.

The disappearance of commuters means that no one is offering money to the destitute, at a time when most soup kitchens and food banks are not operating, and when the closure of cafes has meant the homeless no longer receive unsold sandwiches at the end of the day. It has been left to a few small groups of volunteers to provide thousands of meals a week.

Martin, 27, worked his way up through London’s kitchens, starting as a porter when he arrived in the UK eight years ago to his most recent job as chef de partie at a fashionable restaurant in east London. He was abruptly sacked shortly before the lockdown began, and had to leave the room he was renting because he had no savings. He has been sleeping on a bit of pavement near Charing Cross station for six weeks.

He said he has been told five or six times by outreach workers that someone will call him to organise a room in a hotel. “I waited for a call. I’m still waiting. Maybe the hotels are full,” he said. In the last couple of days his phone battery has in any case gone dead, and with cafes closed there is nowhere to charge it. He finds sleeping on the street unsafe and alarming.

Brian Whiting, a volunteer with the organisation Under One Sky, which started nightly food deliveries at the end of March, said he was disturbed by the number of newly homeless ex-hotel and restaurant staff. “One of the really distressing new things is the hospitality homeless. We’re seeing so many people who were working in kitchens, hotels and pubs until a few weeks ago. They’re so obviously ill-equipped to be out there. The long-term rough sleepers know how it works, but for them it’s very new. They look shell-shocked.”

“I’m still hanging on to my sanity, just,” a man from South Africa, who had been working for five years as a waiter in London, said from the office doorstep where he has slept for the past three weeks since losing his job. He laughed when the volunteer asked him if he was eligible for furlough payments, and said the job came through an agency, and there had been no mention of financial support. Most of those pushed into homelessness had insecure jobs and precarious living arrangements, and no ability to navigate the benefits system or wait for payments.

The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden.

The charity Under One Sky provides food for rough sleepers, cooked by the Punjab restaurant in Covent Garden. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian
On the other side of the street, Whiting was dismayed to see Katarina, 34, a recently-sacked waitress from Italy, preparing to sleep again in the doorway of a cocktail bar. “It’s nice to see you, but I wish you weren’t here,” he said, giving food to her. He was concerned about her deteriorating mental health, and suspected she had started taking class A drugs. He has reported her to Streetlink, a charity that connects rough sleepers to support services, a few times, but she remains in the same spot. “She wants to be helped. I don’t understand why she hasn’t been picked up.”

Aside from the practical difficulties, everyone remarks on the disconcerting silence of the capital.

All the normal sounds and smells are absent – the salty, greasy smells from fast food restaurants, the wafts of coffee from snack bars, stale beer odours rising up from sticky pavements, the stench of rotting food seeping out from kitchen dustbins, even the trails of diesel fumes, have all gone.

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Charities join forces to help most vulnerable

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Two charities have joined forces to help the most vulnerable people in society during Covid-19.

The Big Help, which includes Knowsley Foodbank, and Croxteth Federation’s Family Matters Project have  been awarded £39,310 by the Steve Morgan Foundation’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund.

They’ve been using two Steve Morgan Foundation Smiley Buses and two newly-bought eco-friendly eBikes to deliver hundreds of food bags and essential supplies to those most in need.

Following the award they’ve appointed a Community Resilience Manager to oversee four new support staff at both the Liverpool and Knowsley sites.

They have also teamed up with the local shop and pharmacy to provide food and support to those in hardship either by way of collection or through a delivery service.

The charity is also looking to improve IT systems so workers will be able to continue offering advice and information on a range of subjects including food poverty, welfare and debt advice to clients from their homes.

Cllr Peter Mitchell who chairs the board of trustees of both organisations said: “We’re best placed to know what the community needs and the support from the Steve Morgan Foundation has helped make it possible

“Between both organisations we fed over 20,000 people in 2019 and distributed over 100 tonnes of food and now we have the right people in place to face this challenge.

“Our food pantries have been a big success, helping people to help themselves and become less reliant on foodbanks.

“With more than 50 staff and over 125 volunteers supporting us every week, we are ready to face the challenges during this crisis.”

Croxteth Federation’s CEO Ken Eaton said: “It’s about trying to deliver services in a different way. We can respond quickly whether it’s emergency items, advice on welfare benefits or whatever.

“There are a lot of people who are isolated and vulnerable. Because we have access to the minibus, vans and an eBike we can ferry large and small amounts of food around to the people who need them.

“We are delighted with our grant from the Steve Morgan Foundation, which has enabled us to increase staffing capacity to support those experiencing hardship in these difficult times.”

Steve Morgan, founder of the Steve Morgan Foundation, said: “This is a brilliant example of a charity helping the most vulnerable people in society when they need help.”

One third of British households said they were likely to need government support

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LONDON (Reuters) – One third of British households said they were likely to need government support within the next three months to weather the coronavirus outbreak, according to a survey that reveals growing pessimism about job security and the health of the economy.

Research firm Kantar said 44% of those working believed their job was less safe than it was 12 months ago, the highest recorded measure since it began the survey in August 2011.

Confidence in the health of the British economy had also slumped since the country was put into effective lockdown in March, with 65% of people stating the economy was doing worse than 12 months ago, Kantar said on Wednesday.

Britain’s budget forecaster has said economic output could plunge by 35% in the April-June period and 2 million people could lose their jobs due to the impact of the virus.

The government has launched an economic rescue package totalling more than half a trillion dollars that includes paying up to 80% of salary costs to minimise redundancies and guaranteeing up to 80% of bank loans to small businesses.

The public widely supported intervention, the survey found, with 84% of people either agreeing or strongly agreeing that the government should help people and business affected by coronavirus, whatever the cost.

Six in 10 people said the government was handling the coronavirus crisis fairly or very well, helping boost support for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives to 54%, up 4 percentage points since March, while three in 10 said it was handling it fairly or very poorly.

Craig Watkins, UK chief executive of Kantar’s Public division, said: “These findings show that there is a growing majority who believe the government is handling the crisis well and a strong public belief that supporting people and business during this time should be a priority, no matter the cost.”

Kantar interviewed 1,118 adults online between April 16 and April 20 for the survey.

Rise in people sleeping rough at Heathrow as councils fail to provide accommodation

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Number of homeless people taking refuge at airport doubles since lockdown began.

Dozens of homeless people are sleeping at Heathrow airport after being denied emergency accommodation by councils despite promises from the government that all would be taken off the streets during the coronavirus pandemic, it has emerged.

Since the Covid-19 lockdown began, one of the rough sleepers, a professional woman in her 40s from west Africa who is trying to regularise her immigration status, said that the number in Terminal 5 had more than doubled. She said the rough sleepers were a mix of migrants and British citizens.

“I first started sleeping at the airport last October when I lost my accommodation,” she said. “There were 10-15 of us then. Now we have grown to about 30. We try to support each other by sharing food and things. We have approached different councils asking them to give us accommodation, just until the pandemic is over, but they have refused so we’re still sleeping at the airport.”

Hillingdon council is the closest local authority to Heathrow and some of the rough sleepers said they approached officials there for emergency accommodation during the pandemic but were turned away. A letter from the council’s chief executive, Fran Beasley, dated 16 April, states: “I can confirm that Hillingdon council has taken all necessary steps in assisting known rough sleepers as required and remains fully compliant with government requirements.”

This was written in response to a letter from several organisations expressing concern about the failure to help homeless people get off the streets during the pandemic regardless of their immigration status.

Thousands of rough sleepers still unhoused in England, say charities

“The airport staff are kind to us as long as we behave ourselves,” said the woman sleeping at Terminal 5. “When the virus started the numbers sleeping at the airport grew and I started seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces. It is much safer here than sleeping outside. London is scary at the moment because it’s so empty.”

She said that she had approached several London boroughs including Hillingdon but had been denied accommodation. “If they can’t help us, they should let us stay at the airport,” she said. “The people sleeping here are very calm. They are not using drugs or alcohol. Some of us sleep on the floor. Some on the chairs. There are social distancing notices everywhere and we comply with them.”

A bulletin published on Tuesday from councils about support for migrants with no recourse to public funds during the pandemic says: “Providing additional support for residents is extremely challenging for councils and it is unclear to what extent the government’s Covid-19 emergency funding will adequately meet these costs.

“A consequence of the Home Office not relaxing restrictions on access to benefits during the pandemic for people subject to the ‘no recourse to public funds’ condition is that local government is likely to incur additional costs when accommodation and financial support needs to be provided.”

Fizza Qureshi, chief executive of the Migrants’ Rights Network, expressed concerns about physical distancing in inadequate spaces. She said: “We are extremely concerned that there are homeless people who are having to shelter in the airport because they have been turned away by local authorities … The only thing that is heartwarming is that they are building their own community to lean on during this crisis.”

A Heathrow spokesperson said: “In line with government guidelines, Heathrow is applying the necessary social distancing measures at our airport, which sees us strictly limiting airport access to passengers, colleagues and those with a reason for entry. We are asking all other members of the public to leave to ensure their safety and the safety of others. All new arrivals at the airport who are struggling to find accommodation will be asked to return to their point of origin and contact StreetLink for support.”

Hillingdon council said: “The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is leading on rehousing the rough sleepers based at Heathrow airport. We have offered accommodation to all of the rough sleepers in other parts of the borough who we are in contact with.”

A government spokesperson said: “Over 90% of those known to be living on the streets at the start of the crisis have been offered safe accommodation – ensuring some of the most vulnerable people can stay safe during the pandemic. This remarkable achievement is the result of a collaborative effort across government and with local authorities, health providers and charities.

“This is backed by £3.2bn of government funding for local authorities as part of the wider government response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Overcrowding in government accommodation

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Asylum seekers are being made to share cramped rooms and even beds with strangers in breach of strict measures to contain coronavirus, charities have warned.

Overcrowding in government accommodation has led to new people being brought into shared rooms in hostels since the UK-wide lockdown began last month, according to Refugee Action, Asylum Matters and the Scottish Refugee Council.

The charities said that although the Home Office had stopped evictions from its asylum accommodation for three months because of Covid-19, there was insufficient capacity to safely house the growth in the asylum seeker population.

They added that the crisis would increase because up to 50,000 more people need to be accommodated due to the decision to allow people whose asylum claim or appeal has been rejected, as well as those granted refugee status, to stay put.

Their concern comes after it emerged that the high court ordered the home secretary, Periti Patel, to rehouse a man who developed Covid-19 symptoms after another symptomatic asylum seeker was put in his room. The man, referred to as AQS in the judgment issued last week, was evicted last month for property damage after he became angry with the situation. After sleeping rough, he was taken in by a friend who subsequently developed “symptoms of a high fever”.

A witness statement from Refugee Action’s London asylum service manager in another legal case this month said people were being deterred “from applying for asylum support for fear that they will have to share a room and put themselves at risk should they contract Covid-19”.

An asylum seeker in a south London hostel said that since the lockdown two strangers had shared the only double bed in his room for a week.

He said there had been four people in the room – a video seen by the Guardian shows three beds a few inches apart – but two of them left last week and a new person moved in.

Simon (not his real name) said: “They tell you to sleep in the double bed with other people. Every three or four days new people come in. I am very scared. You are not in a safe place.”

The man, who has latent tuberculosis, said another occupant of the hostel had been taken to hospital with coronavirus symptoms.

A woman in different temporary asylum accommodation in London described her fear about sharing a double room with three strangers. Mary (not her real name), who is HIV positive, said people had regularly arrived at the hostel since the lockdown began.

“Last night there was someone sneezing and there is a lot of tension in the house,” she said. “I have flu [symptoms]. I am feeling scared.”

The judgment in the case of AQS shows his eviction came after another man was moved into his shared room who had “a persistent cough and night sweats”. The man left the next day but AQS developed “symptoms of a high fever and a persistent cough”.

Although AQS, who has mental health problems, was offered a single room, he became angry and was kicked out after an incident with the manager. Following judicial review, he was rehoused in “a facility operated specifically for those entitled to asylum accommodation with symptoms of Covid-19”.

The migration lawyer Simon Cox of Doughty Street Chambers, who represented AQS, said as far as he was aware this accommodation in London was the only dedicated housing for symptomatic asylum seekers in the UK.

He said: “Another of my homeless clients was asked to share a room with five other men on Friday [3 April]. The Home Office should be urgently sourcing extra accommodation, not crowding people into existing rooms. That’s a recipe for transmission.”

Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, said it was impossible for many asylum seekers to practise physical distancing and self-isolation. He added: “Overcrowding in poor accommodation and delays in providing even paltry levels of support have always been rife but now these problems are putting lives at risk.”

Sabir Zazai, the chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, said it was hearing daily from asylum seekers in Glasgow fearful of sharing accommodation with strangers.

A Home Office spokeswoman said: “Asylum accommodation providers are following public health guidance and are providing additional accommodation for individuals with symptoms who need to self-isolate.”

Marks & Spencer is donating thousands of specially branded “We are the NHS” T-shirts

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Marks & Spencer is donating thousands of specially branded “We are the NHS” T-shirts to form part of the uniform pack for the new NHS Nightingale hospital’s London team – making it easier to identify the doctors, nurses, staff and working there.

The UK retailer is also donating clothing care packs for NHS Nightingale patients to help provide some comfort and normality upon discharge. M&S is sourcing, packing and delivering the individual care packs for male and female patients, each containing a T-shirt, jumper, joggers, knickers or boxer shorts and socks, available in a range of sizes.

M&S is also starting a new, twice-weekly free food delivery programme to help feed the teams at Great Ormond Street hospital and St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, with deliveries of nearly 5,000 prepared meals, sandwiches and treats every week for the next two months.

The NHS Nightingale hospital – built to boost capacity during the coronavirus crisis – admitted its first patients on Tuesday evening.

Steve Rowe, chief executive of M&S, said: “It’s been truly humbling to read the suggestions that have been pouring in from colleagues and customers alike with ideas for how we can help those on the NHS frontline. At a time when everyone is facing personal challenges and our own frontline colleagues are working round the clock, it’s heartening to see the whole nation getting behind the NHS teams we’re relying on.

Stop denying help to people who do not have a local connection to public funds (NRPF).

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The group of charities, which includes Crisis and Homeless Link, said they have heard repeated examples of councils denying help to people who do not have a local connection to the area or who have no recourse to public funds (NRPF).

This is despite a letter which was sent to councils last week by minister for homelessness Luke Hall, which ordered them to find accommodation for all rough sleepers during the coronavirus crisis, including those with NRPF.

Charities warn ‘second wave’ of homeless people will need accommodation during coronavirus crisis

An individual with NRPF is someone who is not eligible for government support due to their immigration status.

Since last week, councils across the UK have been block-booking hotels in order to house people who are sleeping on the street or in shelters.

In their letter, the charities said that significant progress has been made, but said “far too many people are still rough sleeping or staying in dangerous communal night shelters”.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “We commend the government’s swift action to protect people most at risk by ensuring they have somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic.

“But the stark fact remains that there are people whose lives are still in danger, sleeping on our streets or trapped in crowded hostels and night shelters.

“To fulfil the ambition of getting ‘everyone in’ we must see the final barriers stopping people from getting the help they need removed”.

“This means ensuring councils have the money they need to support people into hotel accommodation and a clear message that anyone, no matter who they are or their circumstance, will get the help they need to shelter from the pandemic.”

“We must also ensure that once people have been accommodated they get access to the health care they need if they are affected by the virus, and in the long term are supported into safe, permanent housing once this crisis is over.”

Homelessness charities have written to the government

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Urging the removal of the remaining barriers preventing people who are homeless from getting access to the self-contained accommodation they need. Crisis, Homeless Link, and The Passage say too many people remain on the street or stuck in hostels and night shelters.

Last Thursday, in an unprecedented move, the government wrote to all local authorities in England asking them to house all people sleeping rough, and those in hostels and night shelters, by last weekend.

While significant progress has been made in supporting people into hotel rooms, far too many people are still rough sleeping or staying in dangerous communal night shelters.

The charities state that over the course of the week, they have heard repeated examples of councils denying help to people on the basis of them not having a local connection to the area or that they have no recourse to public funds – meaning they are not eligible for government assistance.

As this remains a public health emergency, the charities warn that failure to act could risk putting more lives in danger.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “We commend the government’s swift action to protect people most at risk by ensuring they have somewhere safe to stay during the pandemic.

“But the stark fact remains that there are people whose lives are still in danger, sleeping on our streets or trapped in crowded hostels and night shelters.

“To fulfil the ambition of getting ‘everyone in’ we must see the final barriers stopping people from getting the help they need removed.

“This means ensuring councils have the money they need to support people into hotel accommodation and a clear message that anyone, no matter who they are or their circumstance, will get the help they need to shelter from the pandemic.

“We must also ensure that once people have been accommodated they get access to the health care they need if they are affected by the virus, and in the long term are supported into safe, permanent housing once this crisis is over.”

Thousands of rough sleepers still unhoused in England, say charities

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Councils call for more funds in order to meet government request for emergency shelter

Thousands of rough sleepers in England are thought to remain unhoused despite an unprecedented government request to local authorities to find housing for those on the streets by Sunday evening to avert the spread of Covid-19.

After the unfunded request from the government last week, which also called for the closure of night shelters and street encampments, homelessness charities questioned whether fulfilling it would be feasible. But on Monday, charities were keen to stress that considerable progress had been made in a short space of time, with the national homelessness charity Crisis estimating that about 4,200 had been rehoused in England within a few weeks.

“It shows what you can do with money and organisation and an assertive approach from government,” Matthew Downie, director of policy at Crisis said.

Birmingham city council had worked with a Holiday Inn in the centre of the city to accommodate more than 250 rough sleepers or residents of night shelters, he said, and hotel staff and charity workers were bringing people three meals a day to their rooms to allow them to isolate. Liverpool council has paid for more than 50 people to move into a newly built, unopened hotel.

Officials are concerned about the risk of transmission between people living on the streets, congregating in day shelters, and also about those who live in shelters with communal sleeping, eating and washing areas.

“There shouldn’t be too much self-congratulation about this. There are people still on the streets, and many people who won’t have eaten for days,” said Downie. “But we should recognise that it has taken a global pandemic to sort out an absolutely solvable problem; it is possible to get thousands of people off the streets and out of night shelters in the space of a week.”

Meanwile, charities dealing primarily with people who have an uncertain immigration status said they were worried that not enough support was being offered. People who have a “no recourse to public funds” (NRPF) status – which is given to some asylum seekers, or people who have a limited immigration status – are not normally eligible for support from homelessness charities that rely on government funding. The question of how rehousing these people can be funded remains unresolved.

“It’s clear that NRPF conditions from the Home Office are prohibiting local authorities from supporting an extremely vulnerable groups of people,” a spokesperson for Naccom, a charity helping destitute migrants, said.

The Glass Door Homeless Charity said it had been contacted by many people who still needed urgent rehousing. “We have had one case of someone sleeping rough who has been told they must reconnect to their home country rather than being offered accommodation,” Neil Parkinson, a senior caseworker, said.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, wrote to the prime minister on Monday asking him to suspend the NRPF status. “Across London, there are tens of thousands of residents with NRPF, including delivery drivers, cleaners and NHS staff. Londoners with NRPF are at real risk of homelessness,” he said.

About 60 people were still sleeping in Terminal 5 at Heathrow on Monday night, according to Paul Atherton, a film-maker who has been homeless for a number of years and who is currently sleeping at the airport. He said he had not been given any support from outreach workers or from local councils.

The Local Government Association said councils needed more central government funding to complete the task. “Some councils continue to face challenges securing accommodation, not helped by the recent closures of hotels and caravan parks, and some insurance policies which may limit the ability of some hotel owners to take part in housing rough sleepers.

We are calling on the government to increase support to those councils that are struggling to source accommodation, hire additional staff, and support the people they are accommodating – including with essential basics such as food.”

Figures for the total number of rough sleepers and homeless people in England are unreliable, but Crisis estimates that there are thousands more people still in night shelters, lying next to each other on church hall floors or still living in hostels where they have to access shared space to cook or wash.

“The real test isn’t how quickly we get people off the streets, but how permanently we can keep them off afterwards,” Downie said.

The Home Office, which is responsible for regulations around which non-UK citizens have access to public funds, said: “Nobody should find themselves starving or destitute. Measures we have brought forward such as rent and mortgage protections and food vouchers are not considered public funds and can be accessed by migrants with leave to remain.”

But charities remained concerned about the situation for people who do not have the formal “leave to remain” immigration status.

Universal Credit’s five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support amid the coronavirus crisis

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Universal Credit’s five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support amid the coronavirus crisis, writes Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood.

This week we have seen posts from people showing they were over number 100,000 in the queue to have their ID verified as they tried to claim Universal Credit.

There were stories of people waiting online into the night, only to wake up the next morning to find that they had lost their place in the queue.

With unprecedented numbers of people needing to access support, the government must get help to people quickly.

The pressure on the system is likely to continue. While the announcement of new support for the self-employed is welcome, there will be those who don’t qualify and others who can’t manage two months without income while they wait for the new scheme to kick in.

The long waits to verify identity may have hit the headlines, but the problems with the system are long-standing.

Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a damning report on Verify, the Government’s online verification tool, calling it ‘an onerous system that is not fit for purpose’. It begs the question, why has the government failed to sort out its verification processes?​​​​

It appears that DWP is attempting to verify the identities of people by telephone where they had not been able to do so online, but the volume of inbound calls being dealt with by DWP staff will have soared in the current crisis too.

While current numbers are exceptional, again this is not a new problem: last year staff at call centres in Wolverhampton and Walsall went on strike over working conditions.

Amongst their demands were that the government should recruit 5,000 new staff and limit the number of phone calls per case manager. It emerged last week that the government is redeploying staff from other areas of the DWP to deal with the increase in demand. In so doing, it must make sure that all staff are able to work in a safe environment, both in terms of being given manageable workloads and being able to practise social distancing.

The five-week wait continues to be a source of difficulty for anyone wanting to claim support. The government says that anyone who wants an advance can get one, but of course, it is a loan that needs to be paid back, and people cannot receive it until their identity has been verified.

Rather than providing advances, the government should be giving non-repayable grants, as a number of leading voluntary organisations have been calling for.

The Government says it doesn’t have the technical capacity to do that or to stop taking the deductions from Universal Credit for debt, although it finds itself able to take deductions for Tax Credit debt.

If that is the case, the Government should discuss the possibility of introducing repayment holidays for energy bills with the energy companies. It should also ban evictions and suspend rental payments beyond the crisis, as Labour has been calling for.

April will finally see the end of the Conservative’s four-year freeze on benefits; it has been a critical driver of increased poverty and has left a shameful legacy of hardship. Disabled people and the poor have been hit the hardest by austerity measures. Still, there has been no increase in other benefits to support disabled people, carers or people who are unemployed. Now more than ever, we need to build resilience in all of our communities. The government should do the right thing and increase support for them too.

Margaret Greenwood is the Labour MP for Wirral West and the shadow work and pensions secretary.

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