‘I only had £5’: what happened to the 3.8 million people denied furlough at the start of Covid?

<span>Lisa Butler-Hart: ‘I was changing job so we could have a slightly better life.’</span><span>Photograph: James Lacey</span>
Lisa Butler-Hart: ‘I was changing job so we could have a slightly better life.’Photograph: James Lacey

In March 2020, Mark Edwards was excited to start a new job running a venue that hosted weddings and hospitality events. Before that, the 47-year-old had been working as a general manager at an independent group of hotels for the past nine years. He was living with his partner and dog in Norwich. “My life was on track. I felt everything was in my hands, but that flipped on its head,” he says.

Just as he started his new job, Covid-19 swept across the country. As the country went into lockdown – almost exactly four years ago – and the hospitality industry shut down, Edwards’ new employer sent everyone home. Most people in this situation were able to claim furlough, but Edwards was one of 300,000 “new starters” – workers who had started a job in February or March 2020, but weren’t on their company’s payroll in time to make the furlough scheme’s cut-off date. He ended up being out of work for a whole year, with a mortgage to pay and only six months of jobseeker’s allowance available. He spent £25,000 trying to support his household and keep up with mortgage payments. “It changed everything,” he says. “My entire life plan changed … I’ve recovered in terms of jobs but not recovered from losing 25k. I’ve not got it back.”

According to ExcludedUK, 3.8 million taxpayers slipped through the cracks and couldn’t claim furlough

Four years ago at the start of the first lockdown, as thousands like Edwards were being sent home from work, Rishi Sunak, the then chancellor, introduced the coronavirus job retention (furlough) scheme, whereby the government provided grants to employers to cover 80% of employees’ wages for workers who would have lost their job in the pandemic. About 11.7 million employees were furloughed, at a cost of £70bn. For many, this was a lifeline that kept them from destitution. But, according to the campaign group ExcludedUK, which lobbies for those excluded from financial support during the pandemic, up to 3.8 million taxpayers slipped through the cracks and couldn’t claim furlough or get money through the self-employment income support scheme.

Initially, Sunak said employees had to have been on their company’s payroll by 28 February 2020 to qualify for furlough, but he later changed this to 19 March, so an extra 200,000 people were covered. Unfortunately, most employers pay on a monthly basis, so those who were waiting to be paid by their new employer at the end of March or in April didn’t qualify, simply because they started a new job at the wrong time.

“I tried to rationalise it,” says Edwards. “And every day I thought, is today going to be the day that somebody in government or the treasury is going to go, ‘Oh yeah. I see what we’ve done’?” . But that never happened. MPs asked questions, petitions were signed but the treasury doubled down, arguing that this arbitrary cut-off date was necessary to prevent fraudulent furlough claims for “ghost employees”, and that they simply couldn’t protect everyone. They said extending the cut-off date for furlough beyond 19 March was impossible, due to “the practical implications of monitoring such an extension”.

For those who missed out, the consequences were devastating. Lisa Butler-Hart, 52, says she has worked since the age of 16. In 2020 she left her job working for English Heritage at Stonehenge to return to an old job at a garden centre when her manager asked her to come back. Her husband is chronically ill so, as well as working, Butler-Hart is also his carer. “I was trying to go from one job to another so we could have a slightly better life,” she says. But, like Edwards, she had started her new job just before lockdown and didn’t qualify for furlough.

Butler-Hart and her husband racked up rent arrears and tried to live off their allotment, which they also used to help feed shielding family and friends. “I was sat there with no job, no income, no nothing. I even tried to apply for universal credit and they said no. It was a kick in the teeth really because I wasn’t entitled to anything, apparently,” she says. “How were we supposed to live on the meagre benefits my husband was getting and survive? Financially, we were screwed big time. There was a point when I had to decide whether I could afford to get my prescription or have anything to eat. I spent probably three months with about £5 in my bank account.”

In March 2021, the couple were offered a council house after being on the waiting list for years, but, under the council’s rules, they couldn’t move in while their existing rent was in arrears. A family member offered a loan to pay back the rent and they eventually moved in in July 2021, but, says Butler-Hart, “It’s like everything’s still on catchup … I have been under an inordinate amount of stress this entire time.”

Beth Nash, 47, was booking her wedding with her partner of 17 years when the pandemic began. In 1996, when she was 19, she had joined Thomson Directories and worked there until she was made redundant in January 2020. “I always worked. Ever since I was in my teenage years I always had Saturday jobs, paper rounds, jobs after school, jobs after college,” she says. Thompson had given her a good redundancy package and she decided to put the money towards the wedding.

She spent February looking for work and started a new job at the beginning of March, but was then placed on unpaid leave when Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown. The weeks between being made redundant from her old job and starting the new job were the only time Nash hadn’t been in employment for her entire working life. “That was the difference between me qualifying for furlough or not,” she says. “I could only qualify for around £75 a week in jobseeker’s allowance. The wedding money got swallowed up so we had to remortgage to pay for the wedding because everything was already booked. It’s still not been paid off because of interest rates being so high.”

The worst affected are those who are also being crushed in the cost of living crisis

Jennifer Griffiths, ExcludedUK

Jennifer Griffiths, head of ExcludedUK, says those who were denied furlough “watched in shock, helpless and hopeless, as they realised that they were not going to receive the parity of financial support that the other 90% of UK taxpayers received.

“Many are still suffering the after-effects of taking out loans or overdrafts to survive, and the worst affected are those who are also being crushed in the cost of living crisis.”

Many people also found themselves struggling with their mental health at some point over the pandemic. According to the Office for National Statistics, one in five of us now experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression, compared with one in 10 before the pandemic. Studies have shown that debt can make these problems worse, and Edwards is left wondering about those who may not be here to tell their stories. “How many people actually lost their lives as a result of this?” he asks. “There would have been people homeless, there would have been people that took their lives …”

Despite offering free mental healthcare, ExcludedUK says 37 people who couldn’t access the government’s financial support schemes during the pandemic killed themselves, and hundreds more are still receiving support. One man, who asked to remain anonymous, said he and his wife are still on medication for anxiety and depression after losing £24,000 and coming one step away from losing their house after missing out on furlough. “We’re doing better but we both have to be on antidepressants as we were totally lost. I didn’t let it harm the kids, but it was a struggle for sure,” he says.

I decided I was not going to pay another penny in income tax to any government in this hellhole of a country

Mary Orru

Those affected place the blame squarely with Sunak and the Conservative government who were responsible for the furlough scheme. “I shout at my television screen whenever he comes on,” says Butler-Hart. For Mary Orru, a chef from Newcastle, the betrayal was too much. Orru, 63, was a catering manager at the start of the pandemic but was unhappy with her job and decided to leave in March. Unable to claim furlough, she signed on for benefits for the first time in her life, an experience she describes as “belittling”. She was told at the jobcentre when hospitality opened up again that she should have sold her house. “How can you sell your bloody house in lockdown? I found myself getting depressed and angry – I still am,” she says.

Eventually she found work again almost a year later in January 2021, at a Covid test laboratory, but she still feels cheated: “My parents always said to me, ‘Mary, go to school, do well, get a job, pay your taxes, you’ll be looked after by the country. You retire at 60, you’ll get your pension, you’ll be fine. So long as you work.’ And I’ve done that, and I didn’t get help when I needed it. I worked for 40 years and got kicked in the teeth by the government. I never thought I’d say that about this country.”

The anger Orru still feels prompted her own small protest after discussing this with her husband, who still works full-time. “I’m stubborn, so I decided I was not going to pay another penny in income tax to the coffers of any government in this hellhole of a country,” she says. “I decided I would only work as long as I stayed below the income tax threshold.

“When they’ve got Covid and travel from London to Scotland, have all these parties and jump in cars to check their eyesight, you know they had one rule for them and a different one for us,” she says. “Something happened to the general public during that time, and I don’t think we’ll ever get it back. I think it’s damaged a lot of people.”

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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