“Saturated by despair”. When will the government help the 3 million excluded from aid?

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

More than 3 million people have been excluded from any sort of financial aid in the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have been driven to take their own lives. Some have survived attempts. Here is one story out of many.

I have just spent an hour on the phone to one of the many, many victims of a shocking hole in this government’s provision for sole traders and small businesses devastated by the Covid-19 crisis. I worry that a nation increasingly inured to the daily death figures from the virus is also becoming numbed to the human tragedies playing out right across the country. The government certainly seems impervious to appeals to human decency and simple fairness. But that is why we must get these stories out into the public domain and why Jilly, despite the personal cost in reliving some of her darkest moments, is prepared to talk to me about what she has been through and is still enduring. Please do not look away. These people are victims who have been made to feel worthless, voiceless.

Jilly moved down to Exmouth in Devon with her three children five years ago to escape the abuse she was enduring as a co-parent. She worked at Exeter College as an outdoor pursuits’ instructor whilst starting the process of joining the forces as a naval reserve officer. I will not go into the detail as to how some of the seeds of tragedy were sown by a series of ‘unfortunate events’, but suffice it to say, Jilly’s plans were wrecked by the actions and mistakes of others and a failure in the criminal justice system. She found herself with no option but to set up her own business, which she did in 2019 and with considerable success. Her beauty business was featured in local magazines and she was doing well.

Then the first lockdown came and she was in the category of first businesses to be closed. She, in common with more than three million other entrepreneurs and small businesses, found herself outside the scope of all Rishi Sunak’s much-vaunted schemes to ensure – allegedly – that no-one was left behind. The only support (seemingly) open to her was the bounce back loan and she applied to that through her bank, NatWest. Like many sole traders she had been using her personal account to do business, albeit with card payments providing a complete transaction trail. Business accounts cost money and many micro businesses put off the moment when they have to ‘upgrade’.

NatWest told her that she qualified for the loan but that she would have to set up a business account into which her personal account could feed funds. It took a month to set that account up at which point the computer said ‘no.’ She decided to move to Barclays.

Then lockdown ended and she was able to re-open for a while before further restrictions came back into force. She applied for the bounce back loan through Barclays who assured her that she ticked every box and could be certain of success, she just had to set up a business account with them. There were hold ups. Her name includes an apostrophe. Her utility bills did not show that apostrophe so the system threw them out. Finally, in November, she got her account and went through the application process again. All seemed well.

Then her business card was refused at a petrol station. She rang the bank and was asked to go into her local branch. Which she did.

“They looked at me as if I were a criminal, peering over the screens at me and staring. They told me my bounce back loan had been declined and that my account had been suspended having been flagged up for fraud. They would not tell me the reasons. Said they did not have to. I had £1300 in that account and I needed it. I owed rent. I owed on the lease for the beauty aesthetics machine. I needed to pay for my petrol. For food. They asked for payslips! How could I provide payslips? I was self-employed!
I stood there, pleading, feeling like a liar. They treated me as if I were a liar. I just felt desperate. All this came on top of really awful things happening in my private life. I told them ‘this is it for me. I don’t want to be here anymore.’”

Jilly went home and scooped up the drugs she takes for hip dysplasia. She spoke to her son in her normal way so as not to alert him to anything being afoot. She went to the salon, wrote a note apologising to her family and explaining why she was taking such drastic action, swallowed 150 pills, tied a bag over her head and, eventually, slipped into unconsciousness.

She relies on the accounts of others for her rescue 18 hours later, but she does remember hearing some voices, including those of the ambulance driver, who thought she was dead – and these are the words that reverberate in my head:

“This is just the start. We’re going to see a lot more like that.”

Jilly continues, “I should have been dead. I did everything I could to make sure I would be. I don’t know why I survived but the hospital was amazing. The psychiatric team were so upset by my story that they contacted my MP, Simon Jupp, themselves. “You’re saturated with despair from all these events,” they said. “It’s too much for anyone to bear.”

She was discharged after a few days and whilst she has nothing but praise for the hospital, she has been dismayed by the mental health aftercare or, to be more accurate, the lack of it.

“They’re so disorganised. They are not at all equipped for what is going to be coming at them from the pandemic. I’m on the Excluded site and all I see and read about is people whose mental health has been affected. What will happen to all the people whose mental health has been wrecked? There isn’t the help out there. The mental health team didn’t see me for a week and then they just prescribed tablets. Tablets! Think of the drug cost alone in dealing with the fallout from Covid! And all because people have not been treated fairly and have been driven to do desperate things!”

Through her connections to the Royal Marines, Jilly was ‘rescued’ by Rock2Recovery (R2R), an Exmouth-based charity set up by former Royal Marines Jamie Sanderson and Jason Fox (and the subject of a future article, hopefully). R2R takes an wholistic approach to helping people to recover from stress, with a focus on inspiration, coaching and motivation to help people to embrace a more positive view of their future.

“I couldn’t have made it without R2R” Jilly emphasises. “I get texts from them, homework to do, encouragement … and a feeling that they really care. Meanwhile, the bank’s welfare officer rings up and tells me about their concern for my well-being and it’s just fake, box-ticking. It’s insulting, to be honest, to be told that they care and that ‘lessons will be learned’ from this. That doesn’t help me. They wanted me to go back into that branch on Christmas Eve to prove that the money in my account came from my Dad and they want him to prove where he got it before they’ll unfreeze my account. I can’t go in there and they refuse to understand why. They keep apologising for how I’ve been treated, but they’ve still got my money. Simon Jupp’s secretary says he’s going to take my case up but that was a week ago and I have not heard anything yet. I just want to heal and to survive this lockdown.”

She is understandably bitter about the government’s treatment of the Excluded.

“It’s been unjust. Arbitrary. We keep hearing that the Excluded have been excluded because government thinks we’re all going to defraud them, so we get absolutely nothing … not even a loan, which we have to repay. When business starts again, we’ll be paying our taxes … we’ll be hammered for tax because they’ve messed up their handling of covid and the mess its created … and we’ll have had no help at all. We aren’t exploiting the system. What about all that money they’ve given their mates? What about that? And then all you hear is Rishi Sunak going on about how much money he has handed out. It’s like he thinks just saying these words, talking these big numbers, makes everything OK. People are being told lies and we have no voice, no power to set the record straight, except for the Excluded and a few MPs who stand up for us. But this government don’t listen. They just repeat the big numbers and say they’re doing things they aren’t.”

Jilly’s future remains uncertain, as it does for millions up and down the land. She thinks that since she can prove that she was in business, successfully, before Covid-19 she will, in theory, qualify for the £4,000 grant for businesses with a rateable value under £15,000, but applications do not open until February.

It seems crazy and monumentally unjust to exclude and punish the very people whose businesses and enterprise represent the backbone of local communities, but then there is very little that this government does that makes any sort of economic or social sense. It is hard not to believe that the Devon ambulance driver hit the nail on the head when he said they would be dealing with many more tragedies, and the collateral damage that this will cause should not be underestimated.

For more information on the plight of the Excluded and the organisation’s efforts to secure justice, visit their website, ExcludedUK.org. You can help by writing to your MP and asking them what they are doing to help to address this crisis. We are a nation that, allegedly, loathes unfairness so let’s all do what we can to help the millions being unfairly treated every day.