'We are left feeling bewildered’: Manchester charities react to tier 3 restrictions

After the government introduced tier 3 restrictions in Greater Manchester last week amid a very public funding row, Rebecca Cooney talks to two Manchester-based charities about what it means for them and their service users

Last week, tier 3 restrictions came into force in Greater Manchester. In all 10 boroughs of the city and its surrounding areas, residents were forbidden from meeting with people outside of their households indoors or outdoors, and bars and pubs that do not serve substantial meals were forced to close.

As negotiations between central and local government over the introduction of the new rules became increasingly fraught, it dragged a conversation that is normally held behind closed doors into the media spotlight – funding.

Manchester’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, said he had initially asked for £90m in support, but that the area would need “a bare minimum” of £65m to "protect the poorest people in our communities". When he refused to accept the government’s offer of £60m, the government imposed the restrictions anyway, initially offering just £22m worth of support.

The following day, the government said it would in fact be giving Greater Manchester £60m - still £5m below what Burnham suggested was needed.

"We are looking at a lost generation"

Save the Children, which works with children in the area, issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned that local lockdown restrictions will push families further into poverty and hardship, at a time when they are still reeling from the effects of the previous lockdown”.

It’s a concern shared by local charities in Manchester.

Simone Spray, chief executive of 42nd Street, a mental health charity that works specifically with young people, says: “In effect, we’ve been operating under quite robust restrictions for the past few months anyway, and we have done an awful lot of work as a charity to ensure we are able to continue to support young people with the choice that we tried to offer before Covid.”

The charity, like many across the country, has moved to remote working and blended models of support to allow it to limit the amount of face-to-face contact that staff have with those they support. Referrals for its online support have surged by 360 per cent over the past six months.

Despite this, Spray says that the charity, which had an income of £2.3m in the year to 31 March 2019, “did all the heavy lifting early on” and now feels it has reached a place where it is operating safely, and the tier 3 restrictions should not have too much of an impact on the day-to-day running of the charity. 

But, she says, there are wider implications that she is worried by. 

“We are seeing so many issues, around the inequalities agenda, around housing and homelessness, comorbidity, alcohol abuse, domestic violence – they are all very obvious to the voluntary sector in Greater Manchester, and with the restrictions and increased covid regulations we are going to see a lot more of that,” she says.

“We are going to see surges in these complex cases, which is going to put a strain on all services, but especially charities.”

Many of the problems that charities are seeing might not currently meet the threshold for emergency intervention, Spray says – but as the situation becomes more difficult over the winter, failing to deal with them now may be storing up bigger problems further down the line.

“If we’re not able to support those families with additional pressures financially and socially, and if they can’t access all the mechanisms by which they might have been able to support their own mental health, it's going to carry on hitting us through the NHS, social care and unemployment systems for many years to come,” she says.

For the young people the charity works with, the impact was likely to be particularly acute.

“We are looking at a lost generation,” Spray says. “They feel like they’ve got nothing for them for the foreseeable future, you don’t want to feel like that when you’re 21 do you?”

"More than 1,000 revisions to the guidance" 

It’s a similar story at Mustard Tree, a homelessness and anti-poverty charity. The charity, which had an income of £1.3m in the year to March 2019, used to have around 500 people a month making use of the food club at its community shop, which offers £15 worth of groceries for £3 - it now helps around 1,000 people a week.

In a bid to keep the shop open when it was so clearly needed, the charity has followed the advice offered to supermarkets and care homes to ensure it is operating safely.

“There have been more than 1,000 revisions to the guidance so we’ve had to keep a really close eye on that every time it's changed,” says Jo Walby, the chief executive of Mustard Tree.

Many similar charities have been forced to close, she says, which has also pushed demand up.

And while the charity as an organisation has coped with the increase in demand and been successful in securing funding from the council, the Manchester United Foundation and others, she does have concerns about the individuals within it.

“There is huge pressure on staff and on their wellbeing, and the risk of burnout is looking high – people haven’t taken leave because it's too full on,” she says.

“And for the people we work with, there’s so much pressure on them, trying to navigate all of these systems to get the support that they want.

“I think people are tired now, less willing to comply, they’re more grumpy and are having more mental health challenges.

“When the pandemic started people had a bulldog spirit but now there’s a lot of despair and despondency of how they’re going to cope in the winter.”

Walby is also concerned about the long-term impact of the pandemic.

“Lots of charities are facing the pressures of ‘how do you plan what’s happening now but also for next year?’ How do you secure income for next year, if you’re not achieving the same outcomes you’re normally measured on because you can’t see people?” she says, pointing out that trust and foundation income will likely falter if the economy stalls.

Lack of funding 

Both Spray and Walby are frustrated by the political negotiations over support funding from central government - particularly about Burnham’s attempts to secure additional funding were perceived.

“It wasn’t ‘We’ll do it if you pay us,’ but ‘we can’t make it work at all if you don’t give us the money to support people’,” Spray says.

“It’s about people who have been living in poverty for a very long time and need even more help than ever.”

What is particularly galling, both leaders say, is that Manchester Council alone is facing a budget shortfall of £100m in 2021/22, and in the past 10 years has made more that £379m worth of cumulative cuts and reduced its workforce by 40 per cent.

In that context, Walby says, £90m between 10 councils doesn’t seem like such a big ask.

It’s left us feeling bewildered that it was seen as difficult to do - it just doesn’t seem to make sense,” she says. 

“It’s all the cliches about playing the fiddle while Rome burns or rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic – we’re all seeing an increased level of despair and confusion, which isn’t the fault of government, it’s not the fault of anybody because the whole world’s in this situation, but there’s so much confusion.

“We just need to use a bit of sense – from our point of view, clarity would be good.”

Without funding for councils and their partners, she says: “People will have nowhere to go and you’re going back to a Victorian era with churches and charities to look after people." 

Spray says that she is sympathetic to the need to control the virus, but sceptical about what good the new restrictions, which shut down part of the economy but stop short of a full lockdown, will achieve.

“In Manchester, we haven't been able to meet other families inside for months and months and the rates have gone up. It's much more to do with crowded housing and crowded environments, small houses with lots of people in them,” she says.

When the national lockdown was lifted in June, the virus’s reproduction rate in Manchester was much higher than that in London – all in all, she says, there’s a feeling that a “London policy” has been applied the whole country.

“The current additional restrictions are going to have a greater disproportionate impact on the welfare of Greater Manchester than they are on the rates of infection,” she says.

“It doesn’t make a great deal of sense really.”

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