We will need the Blitz spirit to keep us going this winter
Claire Cullens highlights the challenges facing Norfolk this winter
This winter is set to be the toughest in many years. People across the East of England face soaring food, energy and tax bills, while at the same time seeing an increase in pressure on the NHS and the possibility of further Covid-19 restrictions. Around 70,000 people in Norfolk alone have also just seen a 10% drop in their Universal Credit, with almost half of people on Universal Credit being in work and yet rely on the £20 a week uplift to help counter ever-increasing costs of living. This is on top of the existing challenges of keeping warm, healthy and connected during the winter months. As we edge closer to Christmas, it is clear that our communities are facing a number of challenges and need urgent help.
Many will face difficult choices this winter. Do I cook a hot meal or pay a bill? Turn the heating on or buy Christmas presents for the children? Community organisations and charities are already reporting a significant increase in anxiety and stress amongst a number of people they work with, many of whom still feel isolated and fearful as a result of the Covid pandemic. Our local charities are also predicting a surge in demand for their services, including access to emergency food and fuel bank vouchers.
Schools have told us that there has been an increase in families now claiming Free School Meals and approaching them for additional support. Some have reported that over half of their students are now eligible – a huge increase from last year. Additionally, Norwich Food Bank, which hand out more than 800 emergency food parcels a month, expressed their concerns about the withdrawal of the Universal Credit uplift. It may take over a month for claimants to realise the full impact of the withdrawal, with raised concerns over a return to scenes last seen at the height of the pandemic where 1,200 boxes were distributed monthly. This is happening alongside rising gas and electric prices, and the Foodbank is expecting their Energy Bank scheme to see much higher demand.
Billie Lawler manages The Burrell Shop, which provides affordable food and support to people in Thetford. She told us that: “Use of emergency support in terms of food and fuel banks will increase and people may be forced to choose between getting food on the table and putting on the heating.” Norfolk has a higher than average number of people who struggle to heat their homes and there are no signs of this getting any better. With an increase in energy prices, many will see household energy costs rising by hundreds of pounds, impacting heavily on those who often have the least amount of money in the bank and who are stuck on the highest tariffs with pay-as-you-go meters.
Whilst it is undeniable that the most vulnerable will be the hardest hit by these rising challenges, the impact will be felt by many more this year, from rurally isolated pensioners to working families who are just about getting by. It is clear that those with the least are feeling it the most.
Despite these rising challenges, there are fantastic local charities, community groups and voluntary organisations across Norfolk who can provide vital support across our communities. The last 18 months have demonstrated the power in investing in community responses to big crises, and the significant difference this has made at a grassroots level. During the height of the pandemic, by raising funds, sharing knowledge and pulling together, we made sure that our charities kept families warm and fed, kept the most isolated people company, and revived community spirit during our darkest hour. By coming together, Norfolk shines brighter.