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Northern Anglican bishops warn of ‘disillusion and unrest’ as pandemic hits poorest hardest

26 October 2020


A woman uses a public hand-sanitiser dispenser in Leeds city centre, last month

A woman uses a public hand-sanitiser dispenser in Leeds city centre, last month

THE Government must give financial aid to the poorest communities suffering disproportionately from the pandemic, or it risks the “disillusion and unrest” of a nation divided by wealth, the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of Manchester and Leeds have warned.

In a joint article published in the Yorkshire Post on Saturday, the Archbishop of York, the Most Revd Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, and the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, write that thousands of people are experiencing a “terrible double whammy” of poverty and increased vulnerability to the coronavirus. The north of England and the “hidden homeless” living in temporary accommodation are disproportionately affected.

“Those in more deprived communities, urban and rural, are also most likely to be living in smaller and more cramped homes. They have lower incomes and little job security. They are much less likely to be able to work from home or enjoy flexible working practices and, of course, that is if they have paid employment and a roof over their heads in the first place.”

Immediate benefits and consistent higher wages are needed both to narrow the wealth divide and support people who could otherwise not afford to self-isolate if symptoms presented, the article says. “If we are going to bring real equality and levelling up across the country, then people living in poverty need to be paid a sufficient wage that can enable them to feel secure by staying home.

“Blaming them for not doing so is not an option. They simply don’t have the cushion or the safety net that is there for people on higher wages, nor is the current benefits system the help that it should be. For most people, there is a five-week delay in accessing benefits. This is far, far too long.”

It was not party politics but this “heart-breaking reality” that was behind the standoff last week between Greater Manchester authorities and Westminster over how much government support should be offered to support the region under Tier 3 restrictions, they write (News, 23 October).

“It is not that local leaders and people in Manchester don’t understand the need for controls and restrictions to slow the spread of this virus and save lives, it’s just that those very restrictions are crippling the people they are trying to save and, for them, doing very little to protect them from coronavirus, for they are the people who have little choice about still having to go to work, only now for a smaller wage.”

The Archbishop and Bishops continue: “As this tough winter begins and the poorest and most vulnerable in our society take the biggest hit, we need a collective, nationwide response.

“This will require further injections of money to support poorer communities which, yes, will be a cost to all of us, but it is a price worth paying since the alarming alternative that may emerge if we don’t get things right is a divided nation.

“A divided nation where one section of society, generally wealthy, generally living in the South, is able to screen itself more effectively from coronavirus and get through to the other side of this pandemic, and another section of society, generally poorer, generally in the North, suffers greatly.

“The cost of this division, particularly among younger people, will only lead to disillusion and unrest. We need to find ways of bearing the cost of this proportionally and even finding ways of increasing social cohesion through the shared enterprise of finding ways of defeating Covid-19.”

The disintegration of cohesion seen in some communities in Manchester and the north-west last week could be avoided, they write. “But it requires a different sort of vision and one that begins with much greater collaboration between Westminster and local, regional and devolved leadership.

“If we fail to do this, it will be measured in human suffering and may turn out to be a scourge more dangerous and destabilising than Covid-19 itself.”

On Tuesday, the Greater Manchester authorities launched a new fundraising campaign, oneGM, to respond to the social and economic impact of the coronavirus in the city-region, including tackling food poverty and homelessness.

Dr Walker, who took part in the launch, said afterwards: “Together we will support each other through the coming corona winter. Faith communities will offer our volunteers, leaders and buildings as part of the effort. Our worship gatherings will sustain the spiritual lives of our people.”

In the House of Lords on Monday, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, asked the Government how its economic recovery plan would ensure that current social and economic inequalities were addressed.

The Conservative peer Baroness Penn responded that the Government was committed to this through initiatives such as the Kickstart Scheme, the Job Support Scheme, and enhanced welfare provision particularly concerning unemployment.

Bishop Mullally then asked whether the Government would revisit the 2010 Marmot review — an independent study commissioned by the Government into health polarities in the UK. She suggested setting up a taskforce which would “focus on understanding the social and economic determinants of health from a holistic, society-wide perspective”.

Baroness Penn replied: “The update to the Marmot review was an incredibly important piece of work and the Government are committed to tackling health inequalities. Indeed, a piece of work that we have started since the pandemic is looking at the impact of Covid, particularly on people of different ethnicities. That work is ongoing and has revealed that while there are still some unexplained factors, it is the socioeconomic ones that play a major part in providing for different outcomes for people during this pandemic.”

The debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty announced on Tuesday that it was recruiting 15 new debt advisors as part of its pandemic response, funded by the Money and Pensions Service.

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