Pandemic poverty: "I can't afford to live on £94 a week"

Four women in the UK explain how the British government's coronavirus support scheme has let them slip through the safety net. #HumansofCOVID19

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
15 April 2020, 4.20pm
Woman covers face with hands
Kat Jayne

Pandemic may tear my husband and I apart

Mary Williams*: I have to re-apply for my spousal visa but my husband and I no longer earn over the threshold so it might be denied.

Like many, I’m out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic. My partner, who is self-employed, has seen his work dry up. On top of the financial worry that has sadly become common for so many of us, we also have to deal with the fear that we will be torn apart. Why? I’m from outside Europe, so if me and my partner can’t keep our payslips over a certain threshold during the pandemic, we could be torn apart by the Home Office. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve been at the sharp end of Home Office policy, nor the first time that my partner has seemingly been punished for falling in love with a foreigner. In fact, the stress and anxiety we’ve endured over the years of trying to live together in the UK is hard for most Brits to wrap their heads around. We’re married – so most people assume it would be easy for us to be together in my partner’s country of birth. In fact, we’ve had to fight tooth and nail to be together from day one, and we’re still having to now. 

When we first met, I was an international student. We fell in love, and were married about a year later. While we knew my partner didn’t meet the minimum requirements, we were encouraged by our solicitor to apply for a marriage visa. 

Sadly, that advice was wrong. We were turned down, because my husband didn’t earn above £18,600. We ended up in a two-and-a-half year battle with the Home Office and the courts, spending thousands of pounds to prove that my husband’s human rights would be breached if he had to choose between being with me in my home country, because I wouldn’t be allowed to stay here, and being here with his elderly and unwell parents. Throughout it all, my partner acted as a carer for both of his parents, and I was diagnosed with, and battled, life-threatening illness. 

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Things finally went our way when we found ourselves back in court a third time and, after so much stress and anxiety, I was granted a visa to stay in the UK with my husband. But that wasn’t the end of it. Now I’m having to apply imminently for a new visa to be able to remain here with my husband. We now have to prove our income again – otherwise, we’ll be trapped in the same nightmare we went through the first time around. Our income, like that of many, many others, has taken a huge hit due to the pandemic, and I don’t know how it’s going to be possible to prove we’re over the threshold. 

I'm at high risk because of my previous health problems, and of course am not entitled to any benefits whilst I’m on a spousal visa. As work has dried up for me, will I have to consider putting my life in danger by going out to work, just so I can meet the income requirement and pay nearly £3000 in visa fees, in order to be able to stay? Will I be forced to choose between my family and my health?

It’s always cruel to say that only people who earn above a certain amount deserve the right to fall in love with whoever they choose – but to threaten couples like us with separation during a pandemic is downright inhumane at a time when families are struggling to merely survive. 

Three kids and no government support

Beth Hopkins: I have worked since my teens but because I was between jobs for a few days, I don’t qualify for furlough.

I live in Birmingham. I got made redundant in January this year, completely unexpected. I’ve always worked, even as a teenager. Paid into the system, never been on benefits. I went straight away looking for a new job with less pressure, and found the perfect job working for a lovely, small family business selling workwear and promotional products to businesses and charities. The job offer was emailed on 24 Feb. I started on 2 March. I had no employer on 28 February. For the first time in my working life, I was without a job. But I was about to start a new one. 

I loved the job from day one. There was a lovely environment, lovely boss and colleagues. I was doing something challenging but fun with no pressure as such, as it worked around home and the children well. 

I did a few weeks’ work while all the talk about COVID-19 was building. My boss has on numerous occasions told me my job is 100% safe and that they’ve been looking for someone like me for a long time.

My boss was planning on putting me on furlough but because of the cut off of 28 February, their hands are tied. They have paid me for March but I’m now at home on furlough, but not through the government scheme. My partner works in a school so I cannot claim universal credit and I’m still classed as employed so cannot claim job seekers’ allowance either. 

We have sorted a mortgage holiday but all that’s doing is adding more interest. It’s not giving us enough to pay everything else and live, and we have three children. Besides which, why should I be discriminated against and not covered by the government’s scheme?

I can get no help. Yet Rishi Sunak [Chancellor of the Exchequer] states no one will be left behind… then backtracks again saying he can’t save every job. But the MPs are all being given £10,000 each to cover expenses working from home. Where is the justice?

We are surviving on my small part-time wage

Allison Robertson*: My husband missed qualifying for furlough by one day, and his boss is dodging queries.

My husband worked for BT and recently left due to depression at work, because call centres are really tough mentally. He started his new retail job a week later and was much happier.

I work for a restaurant and went part-time in February., three weeks after he started his new job. Then he started to get symptoms. They get a lot of elderly customers so we thought it would be reckless not to self isolate. Then, a few days later, the business was made to close by the government. 

My restaurant had already closed but I was furloughed thankfully, and the restaurant is paying us out of pocket weekly (since we are always paid weekly), so we don't have to wait weeks for payment from the government.

My husband's boss, on the other hand, is dodging everyone's queries, and is unable to furlough him along with the rest of the staff because he started on 29 February officially. And now he's dodging demands to pay my husband for the three weeks he worked.

My husband went to BT to ask his old managers if he could be furloughed but BT isn’t furloughing their staff.

So, at the moment, all we are getting is my weekly part time wage every Thursday and desperately trying to pay our landlord as well as all the bills.

It's just mental that, if you're currently on someone's payroll, you can't be furloughed because of a random technicality.

I keep trying to reassure my husband that the government will eventually step up, but we're defaulting on a lot of utility bills right now. Thankfully, he is a good cook, so we can get canned goods. We had savings that we've now blown through (I was saving for my citizenship visa). So we've been able to make it this far, but if he doesn't receive a wage soon, it will be impossible to pay for anything

It's like it's a desperate waiting game to see if the government will redress furlough.

I assume we'll just have to default on our bills and deal with the fallout when the lockdown is lifted. I can't imagine that the government would want everyone to get into such a depressive debt. It just doesn't make economic sense.

We were planning on moving to New York in the next few years because my parents are getting unwell due to various medical problems, but I can't leave the country for more than two years, otherwise I lose my visa, so citizenship was a big step.

I'm so thankful for my own workplace, they've communicated and been with us every step of the way. This crisis really shows the kind of company you work for.

I've seen a lot of people describe this new starter situation as the government 'punishing' people for trying to better their lives. I think they've just not thought it through properly because it's such a crisis, no one knows the right thing to do.

But I would have expected them to act much faster, or even mention it, once they realised they're leaving behind a huge amount of people. Their silence on the matter has just been ridiculous

But I was really proud of our government for coming to a bipartisan agreement so quickly on furlough, and it made me proud to see that a government could actually come together since that's impossible to see from my home country.

I wish they would act with the same swiftness to help all of their constituents when there is an obvious flaw

Overall, I feel like I'm playing this weird game of chicken with the government. I don't want to freak out because that doesn't help, and I have no idea when or even if this will get resolved. But I still have to buy food and pay my landlord, so I'm just doing that until I can't anymore and I'll deal with it then.

Because what else can we do but wait?

I’m being forced back to work although I’m sickly

Alys Jones*: I am an accountant and all my work is on computer, but my  boss has told me to come back to work despite my asthma.

I live in South West England. Sorry I can’t give my real name, but I am worried about anything I say getting back to my boss. I can’t afford to lose my job.

I got a text from my boss. My furlough is cancelled. I’m expected back in the office next week. I can't take leave. If I go sick, I’ll get no co-sick pay, only statutory sick pay. I can't afford to live on £94 a week, so I’m stuffed. I haven't been anywhere for two weeks to keep safe, but now I'm being forced to go into the office.

I have asthma and have been hospitalised twice in the last few years with pneumonia so my doctors insist every year I have to have the flu jab to protect me. If I get any kind of chest or lung infection, I am always very ill. I also have a tremor condition similar to Parkinsons which is made much worse by stress so this isn't helping me at all. 

My boss is aware of all this. But they are ignoring my concerns and health issues, and ignoring the fact I could easily work from home.  I'm an accountant, so everything I do is on a computer. There’s no company sick pay during the pandemic so even if I went off sick or self-isolated, I would only be paid £94 a week, which I can't live on. I’ll be unable to pay my bills or go to work. It’s very frustrating and I can't see any way out of it right now.

Statutory sick pay at £94 a week is absolutely ridiculous. I work, like most full-time people, a 37.5 hour week, and that doesn't even equate to minimum wage! It definitely needs overhauling, especially when you consider that employers can claim back most of it so it's basically little or no cost to them.

Since I've been on furlough, I've not gone further than my garden. My tremors mean I can't walk far so can't go for a walk to exercise as I need someone with me and I live alone. I can’t get anyone to come and walk with me due to the restrictions. 

I have some very good friends and neighbours who have been getting my shopping for me and leaving it at my door as I have only managed to secure one Tesco online delivery and half of what I ordered they were unable to deliver! Having made sure I've kept myself as safe as possible, what frustrates me most that my bosses think it's perfectly fine for me to now come and sit back in an office with other people!

They have literally given us the minimum three weeks per the government scheme. There was no discussion or consultation. I did express my worries but that was ignored.

I have to go in. I don't feel I have any choice. I can't afford not to be paid or to lose my job, I have no other income and no one else to support me. I will be making sure I am at least a minimum of two metres away from everyone else and not allow anyone to approach my desk. 

A friend has also given me some masks and some sanitiser to use in the office. I'm just very disappointed in their attitude, and I know it's not a global company-wide policy. I will speak to them next week and ask them to reconsider working from home or extending my furlough, but I’m not holding out any hope!

*not their real name

[As told to Adam Ramsay]

This story is part of our Humans of COVID-19 project: lifting up voices from across the world that are not being heard during this crisis. Click here for more of these stories

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