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Six million fall behind on bills due to coronavirus

Paloma Kubiak
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Paloma Kubiak

One in nine people – the equivalent of six million people across the UK – have reported falling behind on their household bills as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Carers, key workers and those who have been shielding are the hardest hit when it comes to the health crisis, according to charity Citizens Advice.

It said these groups are twice as likely to have fallen behind on bills, based on a nationally representative poll of 6,000 people.

Further, black people, those aged 18-34 and disabled people are also twice as likely to have fallen in the red.

And with the looming ban on evictions to be lifted this weekend, those struggling financially will face even more problems and risk having bailiffs knock on their door.

For one in five already behind on bills, they’ve had to go without essentials, with half of those going without food. A further one in five said they have sold possessions to make ends meet during the pandemic.

The charity said it fears many of those who are in debt now may never escape it, adding that those who sought help in March will need two and a half years on average to pay back their debts.

It also said businesses, landlords and councils may face a mountain of unrecoverable debts, affecting their own viability. This along with reduced consumer spending, could hamper the wider economic recovery, it said.

In one case seen by the charity, a mother-of-two with a long-term health condition began a new job in March. As the country went into lockdown, she was told she would need to shield. Her employer wouldn’t furlough her and she wasn’t permitted to work from home.

With previous manageable debts, the loss of income pushed her into further debt and she’s now three months behind on council tax and other bills.

She said: “I had a payday loan and now I’ve started to use that, I can’t really get out of it and I’m always in my overdraft. When I started this job I was OK financially but because of coronavirus and being off work for a couple of months, it’s put me back in a never ending cycle.

“Since being back at work I’ve been doing double shifts every single day. So I’m working 10 hour days, five days a week to get a better wage to help get me out of this cycle of debt.”

Citizens Advice is now calling for one-off or time-limited financial support for arrears built up because of coronavirus, with the cost of relief shared fairly between government, creditors, and individuals. This would be tailored to each sector but could include grants, payment matching or government-backed loans.

‘Schemes protecting jobs and incomes coming to an end’

Chris Whitehead, a debt advisor at Citizens Advice Newcastle, said: “This is a crisis that nobody could have planned for financially and we hear daily from people how tough it’s been for them to deal with the immediate issues of putting food on the table, paying the bills and essentially just getting through the day.

“We’re hearing from people who are struggling to keep their head above water after months on reduced incomes. From having fallen behind on a few bills, they will soon be at risk of losing the roof above their head, or being targeted by bailiffs. They are simply overwhelmed and at rock bottom.”

Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said: “As the government takes steps to try to kickstart the economy, it must not forget the millions who’ve fallen into debt because of a crisis no-one could have foreseen.

“Protections put in place by the government, businesses and regulators have staved off the worst consequences of lockdown debt – so far. But with these measures beginning to end, millions will now face the repercussions.

“It is not right that people who’ve followed government guidance by shielding, stayed at home to care for others, been forced to work less, or lost their jobs altogether should be the ones left facing a financial black hole.

“Government and businesses must help them now. Financial support for those who’ve fallen into debt must be prioritised to free them from the damaging consequences of long-term debt, and help strengthen the economic recovery.”