It’s not a quote from a horror movie, though the fate of the three million plus ‘excluded’ is an utter horror show. These are the words of Tim, a 35-year-old chef from Wales, who has spent lockdown away from home and family in live-in accommodation in a remote part of Cornwall.
It’s what he feels this government is saying to him and those who have fallen through the cracks of Rishi Sunak’s allegedly all-encompassing Covid-19 financial support package. Tim missed out on any help because he started his new job on 8 March and couldn’t be furloughed. He would have had to have started by the end of February to qualify.
“I live to work” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “And my boss has been great, letting me stay here. But I’ve been reduced to eating every other day, I am in debt for the first time in my life –£5,000 – which is a massive amount to me, and now I feel abandoned. I’m absolutely disgusted by the absence of any compassion. I paid my taxes, I did my bit. Where was the government when I needed it?”
He draws breath briefly. It’s the first time he has really talked to anybody about what it’s been like.
“And it’s not all about the money. It’s the stress. I used to work in mental health, but left because of the cuts and, to be honest, if this had happened to me even a year ago, I would not even be here. People are closer and closer to the edge. How many of us have to kill ourselves before they take any notice? But then, they’ve shown they don’t care about how many people die with Covid, haven’t they? It’s not like the Treasury don’t know about us. They do. They just don’t care. It makes me feel sick. Why am I less deserving than those who’ve been able to benefit from schemes? And don’t get me wrong, they’ve been great for those who’ve been given the money. But what about me and all those like me? I am honest. I’m a worker. The country needs people like us. Any recovery will need people like us.”
At one point, he was saved from hunger by a donation from a stranger hundreds of miles away. Some told him to go to a foodbank. The nearest one is 90 minutes away by bus. He didn’t even have the money for the bus fare.
Tim isn’t asking for pity or charity. He’s asking to be treated fairly.
The overwhelming sense of injustice is a theme that runs through all the interviews I did in researching this piece.
Huw Davies, an IT consultant from Somerset, is the sole employee of a limited company set up to comply with IR35. He got caught by the 19 March cut off. Funnily enough, he hadn’t submitted his tax returns because his year, like so many others, ran to 5 April. He begs Rishi Sunak to set the cut off for annual PAYE to after that date.
“I have always paid my tax immediately and when I am working, that can add up to a lot. The company I was working for cancelled all their external contractors immediately lockdown came in. I was lucky that I had savings to live on and I recognise that I am in a much better situation than most because of that. That’s why I have got involved with the Excluded group and am trying to help where I can. I am fighting for the principle, but others are fighting for their lives. I have written to my MP, Liam Fox, over and over again, but I get no response – not even an acknowledgement. They simply don’t care.”
Children’s book illustrator, poet and author, Kev, from Devon points out that he isn’t after special treatment. He just wants parity. A teacher for 17 years, before disillusionment with the way children were being ‘processed’ destroyed his enthusiasm for the job, he went self-employed in September 2018. He could have applied for universal credit, but he didn’t, because of Sunak’s promise that no one would be left behind. Then he was ‘saved’, briefly, because some invoices from the previous year got paid. His future is very uncertain. He had author tours booked for China and Slovakia, as well as lots of school visit in the UK; all cancelled, of course. All his illustration projects have been cancelled too. He, like all the other interviewees, loves work and has happily paid his taxes.
“It’s so stressful, all this. I have found it so hard to concentrate. I’m quite a private person so I have not spoken out before. The whole process of applying for help is degrading. I can’t even get a discretionary grant because I work from home. No-one else has had to prove as much and the assumption has been that we are all on the take. It’s wrong. Sunak knows it isn’t true. It’s his robotic empathy bypass that makes me feel completely undervalued. Just how desperate do you have to be? In the end, the only way to deal with my distress was to write a book – ‘Mouse and Bear’. I’ve sent it to MPs, hoping that it will help them understand how I feel.”
Katherine Bolton, also from Devon, voted Conservative in the last election because, as a small business owner, she felt they were the best choice.
“I am bitterly regretting the decision,” she says.
“I have supported the decisions, choices and guidance made by the government, as this is an unprecedented time and there has been an unprecedented amount of financial help (for some). However, over the last few months I have become disillusioned by the blinkered viewpoint that we excluded either don’t exist, or we’re millionaires who have fraudulently used loopholes. I am a law-abiding, hard-working individual, who has always been 100 per cent honest, paid my taxes, never claimed benefits, and do my best to support my family by working hard in my own business. I can’t believe that my industry (beauty), which is bigger than the car industry, has been forgotten about, and even worse, smirked about in PMQs.”
Katherine generously praises the support given to others but her own situation has seen her battle with despair. She had savings set aside for her wedding in December, so was not eligible for support. Her partner is a self-employed musician, and he too was left without any income. Car repairs and vets bills were almost the final straw, but she found the mutual support on Excluded’s Facebook group inspirational, encouraging her to get actively involved in their campaign.
“I’ve been reliant on help from my parents and on debt to get through this. And as for my MP, Neil Parish … well, I have written to him several times and requested a meeting via his website. To date, I’ve heard nothing, though he did attend the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) organised by Excluded, so that’s something. I feel so let down. I’d just like Rishi to acknowledge there are a lot of honest, small business people and freelancers who have been left out of any help and, when we’ve asked for it (which is very hard when you are an independent person) have been totally ignored. You’re more concerned about a good soundbite and boasting about what you have done. Please admit that there are three million of us hanging on a fragile tightrope and we need your help, support and respect. And we need it now.”
This is a follow up piece to Collateral damage: the plight of the excluded, published by Yorkshire Bylines on 9 July. Guest writer Anthea Simmons is based in the West Country where a new Bylines will be launching very soon.