From infection rates to vaccination uptake, we’re not all in the same boat

Housing providers have a crucial role to play in better understanding the differential impact the pandemic is having on communities – and working with health authorities to dispel myths about vaccination, argues our Chief Executive Carol Matthews.

People seem to love the saying “we’re all the same boat” to show a sign of camaraderie in difficult times, but recently I’ve been wondering: “are we really?”

During this past year and what feels like never-ending lockdowns, it’s been undoubtedly hard for everyone across society, but we can’t deny it’s been far harsher on some – often those who we, as social housing providers, are here to support.

The hugely imbalanced impact of the pandemic, as well as vaccination uptake, only heightens the danger that COVID could linger as an endemic disease of the poor and marginalised.

I think British writer Damian Barr hit the nail on the head when he said: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

I’m not sure I’ve heard a more fitting description of the country’s current disparate spread of health and mental well-being.

Listening to PMQs recently, I heard the startling statistic that three in 10 people who should be self-isolating aren’t doing so because they cannot afford not to work. More worryingly, the head of Test and Trace has also been reported as saying that people are scared to get a test for fear of having to self-isolate. This means lower-income areas are seeing stubbornly high infection rates.

A Public Health England report last summer found that people from ethnic minorities in the UK are more likely to die of COVID-19, and vaccine hesitancy within some Black and minority ethnic communities remains a serious issue.

The stark disparity in vaccine uptake across certain communities risks the ‘vaccine-rich’ being protected while the virus continues to circulate in disadvantaged areas – which are home to many of our customers. Former homelessness tsar Baroness Louise Casey recently asked: “Are we ever going to create a Britain that’s for everyone?”

She has called for a new, Beveridge-style royal commission to address the needs of the 25% or so of the population who have been “badly wounded” by the pandemic. Over these trying months, I’ve been shocked and saddened to see a dramatic rise in domestic abuse, with calls and contacts logged by the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increasing by more than a third between April and December 2020.

One of Riverside’s refuge managers told me that survivors are struggling with isolation, having already left their home, family and friends. Like everybody, home schooling has been a challenge, but I’m pleased to say we’ve provided those who most need it with the IT to aid online learning.

We, along with others in the sector I’m sure, are dedicated to helping those in dire need and are working to create positive outcomes through specialist refuges for women and children fleeing domestic abuse, as well as working with perpetrators to change their abusive behaviours.

With more than 400 providers publicly committing to take action and support domestic abuse victims through the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) Make a Stand campaign, I urge all providers across the sector to do the same.

In the words of former CIH president Alison Inman, these are “our homes, our people and this is our problem” – now, more than ever. Tenancy sustainment remains a high priority across the sector, both from a moral point of view and a business one.

Government announcements that renters will continue to be supported during the ongoing national lockdown restrictions, with an extension to the ban on bailiff evictions until 31 March 2021, was welcomed.

But we have to acknowledge that evictions still happen at times of crisis. We had to end the tenancy of a customer who was firing a crossbow at the police and terrorising a neighbourhood – a choice no one wants to have to make but one that was necessary for the wider community. It only demonstrates the classic dilemma of housing management we face on a daily basis.

The Resolution Foundation recently reported that 9% of families in the social rented sector were behind with their housing payments, considerably higher than pre-COVID rates, with January 2021 figures at least twice the level of arrears going into the crisis. Like many others, Riverside have made funding available to help customers sustain their tenancies and prevent homelessness.

The fund empowers colleagues who are in day-to-day contact with customers to take ownership and give direct help of up to £250 per customer (with examples including food, essential travel costs, prescriptions and internet connection).

We have also adapted our tenancy sustainment services to work online and secured £3m of extra income for our households this year. And despite the challenging job market, we’ve managed to help 178 people into employment.

Looking to the future, as housing providers we need to consider our role in helping to address vast inequalities because, like COVID itself, we are likely to be feeling their effects for years to come.

One thing we need to retain is our empathy when dealing with our customers – we are all human and have been through an extremely tough year together, but to reiterate Damian Barr’s sage observation, “we are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.”

Therefore it is essential we make efforts to better understand the differential impact the pandemic is having upon communities. The continuation of investment in local services will enable us to support livelihoods and well-being.

As voices of influence we have the power to support local health authorities as they roll out the vaccination and help to dispel its myths, especially among marginalised communities. So let’s use our loud and strong voices to help support the creation of healthy, happy and sustainable places.

[This blog was originally published by Inside Housing, 30 March 2021]