Food access under COVID — update to MPs

Photo of various supermarket foods

To the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (MPs)

Inquiry into COVID-19 and food supply

Update from WinVisible of our evidence to Committee last year on food supply and food access (your ref: COV0106)

Disabled women are still struggling with food supply, lack support to cook and eat food (social care services not provided, stopped or disrupted) and have nil, low or reduced income so we can’t afford healthy food and special diet.  Benefits and wages are low, compounded by discrimination in the benefits system and the exclusion of some women in need based on immigration status and No Recourse to Public Funds; or otherwise we are impoverished by care charges taken from our disability benefits so we are forced to cut back on food and heating. Our group and network includes high-needs disabled women, single mums, pensioners, disabled women of colour, women with invisible disabilities. 

Ms A, classed as “Extremely Clinically Vulnerable” (ECV) says about the situation now:

“Notably food parcels are not being distributed to ECV residents in Lockdown 3 [from 5 January 2021].  The parcels previously, though very welcome and essential, did not give options re: diets, e.g. religious, cultural, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, soft diet, etc., therefore many food types were inappropriate.  Some disabled people in Greenwich also found items in the parcels physically inaccessible to prepare without support so said ready meal options could have made access to food easier.  Food items not labelled in braille or large print [so visually impaired people did not know what was there].  Laundry detergents were not included or dishwashing products.

It is still difficult to secure supermarket delivery slots.  Many people could therefore have to go without essential groceries for long periods of time.  The Morrison’s doorstep delivery number and customer care numbers were not operating over Christmas.  Delivery slots not available until 4th Jan 2021.”

Other women also report that supermarket delivery slots are still difficult to get.  For some people it’s getting worse during this recent lockdown.  One says: “I haven’t had as much difficulty in getting a delivery slot since I first managed to get one in late May. [But] I only managed to get two deliveries since Christmas by chancing on slots freed up by cancelled deliveries.”

WinVisible adds: Lack of food supply has been compounded by other discrimination just as life-threatening.  Ms A relies on breathing support.  Her supply of ventilator filters was stopped, diverted to the COVID effort.  (The same was happening to others with muscular dystrophy or other conditions affecting breathing.) Groups including WinVisible supported her struggle to get these.  She had to get legal representation for a “letter before action” to the hospital and negotiate, to get her usual medical supplies.  She also reports: “I have been waiting since Nov 2018 for my support plan to be completed. The NHS Clinical Commissioning Group said Vibrance (agency) are not working on them until after the pandemic so I have needs increase and Personal Assistants promised increase in hourly rate not fulfilled.  I have had problems getting my regular prescription since before Christmas my pharmacy saying items are out of stock.  After chasing around to find a pharmacy which could supply the items I have only now received the prescription on 18th Jan 2021, the pharmacy could not deliver so a volunteer needed to collect it for me. I went without my medication from when it ran out on 24th Dec 2020 until 18th Jan 2021.  I don’t know if the cause of the delay was the pandemic, Brexit or Christmas period related.”

Mrs B told us that over the Christmas period a lot of people were struggling as the food parcel deliveries stopped and so did some of the neighbourhood schemes.  Food boxes have gone downhill in quality, the amounts seem reduced, the food is not fresh, and seems to be whatever people have donated in the supermarket, rather than a balanced diet.  Getting a voucher for fresh vegetables or fruit from supermarkets is tied to getting NHS Healthy Start vouchers so take-up is restricted.

Louisa Britain, known on Twitter as @RoadsideMum, who has ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and is on Universal Credit, has written about what happened after she exposed the disgraceful meagre food parcel for children worth £5.22 for which Chartwell was being paid £35. This was picked up by Marcus Rashford and others, resulting in a U-turn.  Mothers were outraged by unhealthy and sugary contents such as bread loaded with Es.

In Scotland, eligible mothers and other primary carers get various cash allowances for children’s food paid directly into their account, so money can’t be skimmed off by the profiteer “provider”. 

The London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham introduced universal free breakfast for all primary school children and has piloted universal free lunch for secondary.  It was made universal to remove stigma for the children and parents, and because many struggling families with mothers in low-waged work are just above the income level to qualify for means-tested free school meals.

Mothers in the coalition Support Not Separation are demanding:

“A Care Income for single mothers and other primary carers whose indispensable caring work is invisible and devalued.  Mothers must be able to afford to care for their children and keep them safe during this crisis.  Poverty is not neglect and no child should be taken into “care” or forcibly adopted because parents can’t afford food or clothing or housing.”

Mrs C writes: “In March 2020 during the first lockdown all those [who were recognised by the government scheme] Extremely Clinically Vulnerable and Shielded were able to sign up to a weekly food box and to have their medicines delivered to their door.  People were also [eventually] classed as a priority for online shopping slots. Slots however were extremely problematic and for most of the first lockdown I was unable to get a priority shopping slot along with many disabled people I know.

When the first lockdown for the shielded ended on 1 August 2020, all food boxes stopped and all medicine deliveries stopped.  Though supermarket delivery priority slots were kept.  These still were problematic.

Despite the lack of government support, some people – my son being one — were advised by our medical team to continue to shield, as we would not survive if we caught COVID.  By September, shielding letters were reissued — but this time without the support that had been offered earlier.

From what disabled people have told me, the difference this time, was that the shielding list was re-evaluated and drastically cut.  People shielding were no longer on the official shielding list and this meant that they could not secure their supermarket slots. People could not understand why the government had removed their names and no one could find out any information about this. Some people with the same disabilities as my son were suddenly treated differently.  My son and husband remained on the shielded list as ECV – they have not been outside since February 2020. 

The advice in the government and local Council letters has changed.  This time round, people are told to ask family and friends to collect and deliver shopping or medication, or to use supermarket delivery.  There is no advice on what to do if you don’t have these!  What strikes me is the virus is worse now – before, food boxes and medicines were delivered weekly, NOW nothing is delivered in this worsening climate.

As the situation has worsened all my son’s medical appointments have been cancelled, including vital surgery he needed last year, and his health continues to deteriorate. How I link this to food supply, is that unless he had me to rely on, he would probably starve to death as there as days, as his health conditions are left untreated, that he cannot get out of bed, he can no longer make a sandwich and would struggle to organise food and medicine deliveries due to untreated medical issues and all appointments cancelled. How many disabled people do not have the support of live-in relatives? His NHS Continuing Care has also been put on hold.

The other thing that has struck me is in this pandemic, [some] school children have been given computers yet disabled people are not given computers so they can access online shopping . . . all disabled adults should also be given a device so they can go online.” 

WinVisible adds: Disabled people, mostly women, are the majority of people excluded from using the internet (see Abandoned, Forgotten and Ignored, report by Inclusion London, 2020). Many visually-impaired older women or women with learning disabilities rely on phone contact.  And digital exclusion is a massive problem but being online should not substitute for the care, support and company which people are entitled to have.

Ms D is a disabled mum who is shielding and her children are home-learning.  She is currently reliant on a local volunteer scheme which delivers food shopping and medication.  She receives a food voucher of £15 for her children.  She says that although you can use the vouchers online, supermarkets require a minimum spend (typically £40 minimum) and/or charge a delivery fee.  This puts disabled mums who can’t go in person to the supermarket to buy in smaller amounts, at a disadvantage.  Delivery slots must also be booked well in advance so immediate needs might go unmet.  Another woman raised that deliveries are sometimes left outside and can get stolen or spoiled by weather.

Ms E – denied disability benefit for healthy diet and other disability costs.  We are helping a severely ill woman on Universal Credit left in limbo without the disability addition for nearly a year.  She has not received the “limited capability for work-related activity element” of £341.92 per month because her work capability assessment interview held by telephone under COVID precautions, was deemed “inconclusive”.  Maximus is using the pandemic as an excuse not to resolve this assessment which they could easily do by obtaining further medical evidence on paper, while her GP surgery is citing the pandemic as a partial excuse for not providing a letter.  Ms E and we are taking this further.

26 January 2021

3 thoughts on “Food access under COVID — update to MPs”

  1. There is no food no heat no hot water no life support

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