Charting the Pandemic

Citizens Advice of England and Wales has given the most comprehensive picture of people’s need for legal assistance during the pandemic anywhere in the world in its ‘Life Through Lockdown’ report. It contains an invaluable snapshot of the time – ‘More than half of the people who came to us for help between September and December last year said their issue was brought about, or affected by, the pandemic’, ‘1 in 5 said they were not confident in using the internet’. And the issues that it foresees as key areas for the future? All of them relate to increased poverty: personal debt, housing and homelessness and inadequate incomes.

Citizens Advice (CA) is really a unique service even in countries like Australia and Canada which have followed its model to some extent. In modern parlance, it is multi-channel legal information, assistance and referral service run with a spine of 7000 paid advisers and 21,000 volunteers. Its website – the most comprehensive basic legal information resource in the world – got 52m page views in 2019. It has a network of local offices but they have been shut for most of the 2020 pandemic year. It compensated with half a million phone consultations and 98,000 over web chat. CA gave advice to 2m people – most of them remotely via phone (up 77 per cent on the previous year), web chat (83 per cent up) and email (41 per cent up).

CA has learnt how to use data. It can produce graphs which show increased website use precisely related to government announcements on the pandemic: The report reproduces one ‘which shows the traffic to our online advice about the furlough scheme from 10 to 12 May 2020. There were two major spikes – the first immediately after the Prime Minister’s announcement about the easing of restrictions in England, when searches included ‘work during covid’, ‘furlough’, ‘can I move house’, ‘hairdressers’, ‘holiday’, ‘landlord’, and ‘visiting my child’. Two days later there was an even bigger spike as the Chancellor announced changes to the furlough scheme.’

The trends over the year are revealing. ‘After an initial spike in visits at the beginning of the first lockdown, overall views dipped and settled although still at a higher level than during the same period the previous year. As the first lockdown eased, and people returned to something more similar to their normal lives, the number of people coming to our website increased again. It’s likely that during lockdown people prioritised the most urgent problems: with schools closed and children at home, parents did not have the space or time they needed to get help from us. This is similar to the patterns we see in school holidays in previous years. We can see that trend returning during the first months of 2021 as schools were closed once again.’ One trend common to all years (and possibly a good sign) was a big dip over Christmas: ‘Even during a pandemic people still take a much-needed break from their problems).’

Make what you will of the detail that the CA can provide: this is CA’s assessment of changing consultations: ‘Normally, we see a different pattern in our most-viewed pages at the weekend compared to weekdays. On weekdays before the pandemic, people were usually focussed on immediate problems around income, debt and housing. At the weekend, they thought longer term, and searched for advice around family, divorce and wills. During the spring lockdown, this stopped happening – with people at home all the time there was little difference between weekdays and weekends. People were concerned about dealing with their immediate coronavirus-related concerns every day of the week. As restrictions eased last summer, we saw the patterns gradually go back to normal. With people spending more and more time at home, we also saw an increase in the popularity of our page explaining how to complain about your neighbour – but only at the weekend.’

CA can trace website use by category of problem. Redundancy issues rose to a peak in the summer but fell dramatically towards the end of the year. The furlough scheme was as major interest: ‘The furlough scheme was the central plank of the government’s response to the pandemic, with a cumulative 11.2 million jobs supported since the start of the scheme. This was something that had never been done before, and people needed information to help them understand it. Unsurprisingly in this context, our online advice about the furlough scheme has been the most popular content throughout the entire pandemic.’ And CA can link google searches around ‘furlough’ to clicks through to its own website. Debt queries had a steep fall off in the early months of the pandemic but have then risen consistently. And the CA has a hard-hitting conclusion about the inadequacies of the benefit scheme (despite temporary enhancement): ‘The financial challenges people are facing are laid bare by the number of people coming to for help accessing charitable support or seeking a referral to a food bank. While the increase in food bank referrals is partly due to a new partnership between Citizens Advice and the Trussell Trust, it is clear that the welfare net isn’t going far enough – either because it does not cover people’s costs, or because they are unable to access it.’

CA has a warning for the courts: ‘Sometimes our data changes rapidly, and points towards future problems. For example, searches for advice about County Court judgments (CCJs) have doubled in recent weeks, with the vast majority of people landing on our page about CCJs and credit ratings. This suggests that increasing numbers of people are having CCJs issued against them for the non-payment of debts as protections for borrowers affected by the pandemic are unwound.’

The CA data shows the personal cost of the pandemic in three key regards. First, ‘last spring, as many people spent more time at home, greater numbers of people sought one-to-one advice about divorce – as well as questions about children, primarily around contact with parents and other relatives. This has continued throughout the pandemic, albeit at a slightly lower rate following the initial spike.’ Secondly, ‘In a stark reminder of the human cost of this pandemic, we have seen a big rise in prominence of our pages on wills and deaths. A sharp increase during the first wave of the pandemic was followed by an even greater increase during the winter lockdown, mirroring the higher death toll of the second wave.’ Third, the pandemic has change the demographic of the poor: ‘When the pandemic hit we saw a marked change in the type of people seeking our support with applications. In the weeks immediately before and after the first lockdown being announced we saw an 11% increase in the proportion of women seeking our help, a 19% increase in the proportion of under 35s, and a 3.7% fall in the proportion of people with disabilities.’

CA highlights poverty as the issue for the future: ‘The development of a vaccine means that for many people life will return to normal during the course of this year. Yet for millions of people their problems might be only just beginning, as they continue to struggle with the knock-on effects of the pandemic just as the support measures put in place by the government start to be withdrawn.’ 

The value and precision of this report stands as somewhat of a sunlit island against surrounding darkness. We need its insights supplemented by other providers of basic information and assistance. We need to see how its insights feed through into eventual fulfilment. Unfortunately, the courts and legal aid authorities really cannot provide anything comparable. For the former, CA is highlighting an issue on county court judgements. Well, what will the courts have to say about that? No much if they do not considerably raise their game on data collection.

It is not just data, we need. CA can produce this type of report because it is one organisation with, effectively, a large set of franchised outlets operating to common standards. Overall in the field of legal provision, England and Wales has opted for – or, more accurately, ended up with – a disparate range of different providers at every stage of the legal process with no presiding or unifying authority.

And, finally, we do not only need data and statistics. More than these, we need a strategic body or bodies that will deliver justice (and access to it) with the singleminded determination that the NHS is delivering the Covid vaccine. That should be the real lesson of the pandemic. Ultimately, once you have messed about with unfocused test, track and trace, you beat the pandemic with a laser focus on its eradication through a clear strategy and coherent delivery. (Yup. You might be able to tell I had the second Pfizer dose this afternoon) That is  what life after the lockdown should be like.

We can live in hope. 

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