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OPINION: Six months of lockdown. What happens next?

by Rory Mair, CBE, Chair of CAS.

This article first appeared in the Herald on 23 September 2020.

Today marks six months since Scotland and the rest of the UK went into lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For many of us those six months will have simultaneously felt like an eternity while also going by in a blink of an eye. Almost overnight our way of life changed and, save for some small changes around socialising and seeing family members, it has largely stayed the same. Things that were previously taken for granted, like the commute to an office before meeting family in their homes, seem like a distant memory. Too many of us have encountered the tragedy of losing a loved one to the virus.

Shortly after lockdown began, in those breathless weeks where we were all trying to figure out what it meant, I wrote a personal column here in this paper in which I talked about having two unique perspectives on the crisis: as a double transplant survivor in the high risk category, I felt fear - real fear - that I might die. Meanwhile, as Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland, I was keenly aware, that I had a role in a service that was about to become even more essential to people than usual.

Six months on my sense of gratitude to my neighbours and people across the country for largely following the rules around social distancing to keep people safe is as strong as ever. It has been challenging to shield for this length of time of course, and it can take its toll, but it’s what simply has to happen until the virus is under control.

Meanwhile, the reaction of the Citizens Advice network across the country has been simply inspiring. In the days following lockdown CABs transitioned to remote advice, helping people over the phone and via email. The network also launched Scotland’s Citizens Advice Helpline, a national number delivered by CABs, which has taken more than 22,000 calls since its launch in April. Meanwhile we have soaring levels of views of our online advice.

In the six months since lockdown the network has issued over 450,000 pieces of advice to more than 92,000 clients. These figures show what an essential service advice is during this pandemic, and the need for it to be well funded and resourced is more important than ever.

Behind those numbers is the reality of lockdown – people facing significant financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic. The type of people seeking help is also changing, with more new clients accessing our service who had never previously used it, more people who are owner occupiers and more young people.

That growth tells us two things – firstly that the impact of Covid-19 has affected everyone, but also how essential it was that CABs got to reopen for vulnerable clients last month.  While the network has diversified how people get advice, our advisers know that for the most vulnerable people there is simply no substitute for face to face advice.

Our CABs have been able to help people recognise their rights as citizens during this pandemic, often by accessing new and improved methods of support whether that is increased Universal Credit, the enlarged pot for the Scottish Welfare Fund or the furlough scheme.

It’s at that point that the second aim of our network – our advocacy – has been so crucial in helping policymakers understand the impact of their decisions on people’s lives. CAS has been feeding data from the network to decision makers throughout this process and has seen changes to emergency legislation around housing and bankruptcy which has afforded people some protection.

That’s why, at this six month point, are thoughts are also turning to what needs to happen next to ensure people are protected from the economic fall out of the pandemic.

The UK and Scottish governments took bold steps in the early weeks of the pandemic to ensure people had support. It is clear to us that removing this lifeline support now would be potentially disastrous. That’s why we believe the Treasury should extend the furlough scheme for at risk sectors and parts of the UK, and that the £20 increase to Universal Credit be retained permanently. 

The events of this week show that there is clearly a way to go before we defeat this virus, the prospects of further restrictions on people will feel frustrating given we have all made significant sacrifices in the past six months. What we want to ensure is that people can access support while our society and economy deals with the continuing challenges of coronavirus. Bureaux across the country are helping thousands of people every week, but the system also needs to change to ensure that better support is available for the long term.