Hull has become the worst-hit city by coronavirus in Britain. The week to 13 November saw 761 confirmed cases per 100,000 people. The second highest-hit place was Hartlepool, with 597.
Stephen Brady, Hull’s Labour council leader, said Hull faces a “health emergency”. What does that mean for people living there?
Self-employed worker Tanya told Socialist Worker that the latest lockdown has “very much” affected her.
“As a hair stylist I’m forced to close,” she explained. “I am newly self-employed, which means I receive no government help at all.
“The government is asking for at least two years of self-assessment as proof of income. I don’t yet even have one.”
Brady wrote to Boris Johnson this month about the “absence of central government support”. Workers and the most vulnerable have suffered as a result.
Seb runs the Vulcan Centre in Hull. It provides sports and community facilities—and is now “Hull’s biggest food bank”.
“I’m trying to remain upbeat, but it’s bleak”, Seb told Socialist Worker.
“We’re a very poor area with high unemployment. A lot of people rely on public services and food banks. And if you tell someone who has schizophrenia or bi-polar that you’ll be in touch by phone, that has a consequence.
“There’s a massive fallout from nine months of people being left to their own devices.
“There’s a cost to removing services, cutting funding and making people isolate in overcrowded housing. From being on the ground here, I would argue that cost is pretty high.”
Russ, manager of Hull Foodbank, explained how the virus has made life worse for many people. “The foodbank helps people that generally just about get by,” he told Socialist Worker. “So an unexpected delay in wages or benefits is enough to leave people struggling.
“The pandemic has compounded these issues and it’s the poorest, most vulnerable that are hardest hit.”
Russ said individuals, schools, churches and local firms have all supported the foodbank. “The pandemic seems to have mobilised people,” he said. But he added that such services shouldn’t be necessary.
“We are worried that food banks are becoming normalised,” said Russ. “Food banks are only a sticking plaster to support people in the short term.
“They should never take the place of a functional welfare system that prevents people slipping into poverty. The provision of basic necessities such as food should not be down to charities.”
For many people, the government’s refusal to properly support them has sent stress soaring.
It’s the poorest, most vulnerable that are hardest hit.Seb
“I’ve never considered myself a sufferer of stress or anxiety,” said Tanya. “I’m normally a happy go lucky kind of person. Not now!
“During the run-up to this second lockdown, I did nothing but cry for three days solid. The anxiety that came with yet another closure of the salon with no government funding or grant tipped me over the edge.
“One day I popped into the local bakery to grab myself a meal deal. Because the drink I chose wasn’t part of that deal, I burst into tears in front of everybody. Something so miniscule set me off into a meltdown.”
The impact of the pandemic is horrific. Figures released this week showed that nearly one in five people in Hull are now claiming Universal Credit (UC) after widespread job losses in the city.
Over 33,400 people in Hull are now claiming UC—nearly double the figure in March, when the first lockdown began.
But the impact of the pandemic also goes beyond those immediately affected.
Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust had drawn up plans to treat around 200-250 coronavirus patients. It now has a contingency plan to treat up to 800.
Retired teacher Wendy and her husband are in their 60s with underlying health conditions. She said the situation in hospitals is “a huge concern”.
“The chief medical officer at one hospital said if things don’t improve, they won’t be able to provide emergency care,” Wendy told Socialist Worker.
“That sends the impression that you could have a heart attack and there would not be the bed space or staff to help you.
“Hull is isolated geographically. Hospitals in Grimsby and Goole are under massive pressure. You can’t just go to another hospital.”
Children and young people have suffered disproportionately as the pandemic has spread out of control.
“It’s hard for young people,” said Seb. “I’m 41. I’ve done things with my time, gone to university. But the younger generations are going to struggle to do the things we did.
“It’s affected people at university and people trying to find employment. And it goes right down to young kids—how they learn to socialise. We don’t want them to be a lost generation.”
Seb added that there are problems in expecting young people to stay at home in difficult circumstances.
“Traditionally young people socialise, go to parties and school, see friends,” he said. “If they have big families in overcrowded accommodation it’s unrealistic that they will spend all their time indoors.
“Some will be in households with domestic violence or substance issues. Maybe the reason Covid’s at such a high rate in Hull is that people can’t isolate.”
The impact on young people and disruption in schools has also piled more stress onto parents.
“My ten year old daughter is in her final year of primary school, the year of the dreaded Sats,” said Tanya.
“Most of the year so far has been missed due to positive cases within the school. She’s currently isolating as one case was one of her classmates. The majority of schools in this area have suffered either full or partial closure.
“I’m home schooling. I feel as if I’m failing her. I feel that if she fails her Sats this year it will be my fault.”
Instead of supporting children and parents at home, the Tories have argued that school should continue as normal. Meanwhile schools shut anyway.
“One in four children in Hull are not in school,” explained Wendy. “The local NEU union rep said children of key workers are getting sent home chaotically.
“Schools are closing all around you.”
One recent opinion poll in a local Hull paper found that 78 percent of people favoured school closures as part of lockdown. Wendy said some Labour councillors had previously been won to this position—but “didn’t publicly break ranks”.
One in four children in Hull are not in school.Wendy
“Some councillors said deprived children would lose out if schools didn’t reopen in June,” said Wendy. “This time the leader of the council is hiding behind the argument that schools are academies so the council can’t do anything.
“Council leaders and public health bosses should be demanding that all non-essential shops and schools close.”
The Tories want a limited “lockdown” because they fear stronger restrictions would harm profits. Yet this leaves many people feeling like they aren’t in a lockdown at all.
Wendy said one friend refers to it as a “mockdown”. “A lot of non-essential shops are open,” she said.
“B&M was even allowed to open what was described as a ‘huge’ brand new superstore right in the centre of town last Thursday. Special opening details were shared in the local paper.”
Tanya agreed that things feel different this time around. “There don’t seem to be half as many businesses closed as during the first lockdown,” she said. “Pretty much everyone I know is still in work.
“Not as many people seem to be on the furlough scheme. It seems quite a lot of businesses have found a loophole in the system which qualifies them as essential and enables them to remain open.
“These businesses, in my eyes, would not be classed as essential. Yet they get away with staying open. Which in turn encourages the public to go about their daily routines as ‘normal’.”
Wendy said this, coupled with poverty, could help explain Hull’s high coronavirus rate.
“There are a lot of small workplaces in Hull that are a bit under the radar,” she explained. “A lot of people are on zero hours contracts. So there will be enormous pressure for people to keep going.
“I heard of a minimum wage worker who took six days off with symptoms, but was contacted by the employer to get back to work.”
Seb said the virus has “exacerbated problems that were already there”.
“It’s not that we’ve just discovered substance abuse or violence,” he said. “But during the pandemic the services that were helping haven’t been there so much.
“The effect is huge. I know people in rehab who couldn’t get help. It’s set back their recovery. We may be paying for this for quite some time.”
Seb stressed the importance of services that can support people to recover.
“You have social workers, youth workers, social spaces and sports clubs for people’s wellbeing,” he said. “Those things aren’t luxuries. They’re vital for people’s mental survival.
“A huge amount of people have been affected by this. They shouldn’t be ignored.”
Russ agreed that the government could do much more to support people. “The government could help by continuing the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit brought in at the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.
“They could suspend government deductions to benefit payments and introduce a fairer approach to repayments for things like Advance Payments. They could invest in local welfare assistance.”
Tanya had felt the government was handling the pandemic “quite well” back in March.
“Boris was speaking every day, keeping us informed,” she said. “Lockdown followed. Rishi Sunak spoke of helping out businesses and self-employed people, and it all seemed ok.
“But then we came out of lockdown and it was too relaxed. People assumed life was to be ‘normal’. Mask wearing came in too late. We were encouraged to flock to bars and restaurants. Then lo and behold, a second lockdown!”
She said things could have been done differently.
“The first lockdown shouldn’t have been relaxed so quickly,” she said. “Masks should have been part of life from the very beginning.”
Wendy said more support for ordinary people is increasingly essential.
“Hull needed a full lockdown with a proper furlough scheme with people not losing out and the security of employment afterwards,” she said. “But now things are so bad we need lockdown plus. We need emergency action.”
Instead the Tories hope to scapegoat ordinary people for their disastrous handling of the pandemic. They want to focus on people “breaking the rules” and paint ordinary people as irresponsible.
Unfortunately too many others are echoing them.
On Thursday, Brady said that Hull residents would be reminded to stick to the lockdown rules.
But as Wendy said, “People are not breaking the rules by going to shops. The problem is that the shops are open. The rules are not looking to eliminate the virus. They are putting profit first.”