Independent food banks are at risk of closure due to the rapidly spreading coronavirus variant and are calling on the Government to provide cash to hungry families to “protect public health”.
The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) has written to the Prime Minister calling on him to give struggling families money to reduce food bank reliance over the new year lockdown.
The letter says that distribution of emergency parcels “cannot address worsening poverty” and with the number of infections rising “could well contribute to the spread of Covid-19”.
Meanwhile, the need to self-isolate could mean services reduce or close at a time when need is “certain” to rise.
The letter reads: “We are very concerned that the highly contagious new strain of Covid-19 could put food bank staff, volunteers and the people they support at increased risk of infection and that self-isolating measures may involve the reduction in service or closure of food banks.”
It continues: “We firmly believe that to protect public health and limit further transmission of the new strain of Covid-19, the Government must reduce footfall to food banks by prioritising a ‘cash first’ approach to escalating hunger across the UK.”
IFAN represents more than 400 independent food banks and services across the UK.
It said its members have worked “tirelessly” to find new ways to provide emergency food parcels to minimise the risk of Covid-19, but that the new variant is presenting “far greater challenges and risks”.
Ten months on from the start of the first lockdown, many staff are “exhausted” while in some areas volunteer numbers are running low.
Granville Community Kitchen, in South Kilburn, north-west London, was forced to close last week after volunteers and staff tested positive for coronavirus.
It usually provides emergency food parcels for 250 households a week, reaching 1,000 people.
Co-founder Dee Woods said the local community stepped in to pack parcels for a handful of vulnerable recipients as the provider was “plunged into a fast unfolding scene straight out of a disaster movie”.
The risks which teams have shouldered for months are now becoming too much to bear, she said, calling on the Government to act to prevent an “unfathomable disaster”.
She told the PA news agency that thoughts of hundreds of people going hungry over the Christmas break “kept me awake, because I know there were people who went without – people who are destitute and depend fully on us because they have no recourse to anything else.
“These are people who, we know, have been sleeping rough since the summer, they come into the building for heat and to use the bathrooms.
“There’s so many people who would have gone without, and if you multiply that, it’s a disaster.”
Asked how concerned she is about other food providers experiencing similar struggles, she said: “It is going to happen, no matter how safe we are, because for most food banks and independent providers we are shattered, we are physically shattered, and I think that might have been a factor.
“We’ve been doing this since March non-stop, literally either burning out or on the verge of burnout.”
IFAN coordinator Sabine Goodwin said: “With the lockdowns now in place the situation on the ground is becoming extremely worrying. Independent food bank teams were already challenged by the pandemic, struggling to source food supply while developing elaborate systems to keep to social distancing rules.
“We fear the new, highly contagious Covid-19 variant will prove to be the final straw for many independent food aid providers as volunteers, staff and their beneficiaries fall ill or need to self-isolate.
“Increasing numbers of people need their support and it’s unconscionable to drift on not taking the decisive action that’s needed to stop people going hungry in the first place.”
As part of the ‘cash first’ approach, IFAN is calling for ring-fenced funds for local authorities to give out cash grants to people who are struggling.
The £20 uplift to Universal Credit, currently in place until the end of March, should be made permanent and the five-week wait for a first payment ended, it said.
The no recourse to public funds status should be permanently suspended, with people subject to the condition able to access the grants, it added.
A Government spokeswoman said: “We know this will be a difficult time for many which is why we have boosted welfare support by billions of pounds, extended furlough and introduced £170 million to help children and families stay warm and well-fed.
“And for anyone eligible for Universal Credit, urgent payments are available so no one has to wait.”