If we needed any more confirmation of the low priority this government affords to the charity sector, its response to the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly provided it. Amid warnings that the sector’s losses would top £4.3bn in the first three months of lockdown alone, the chancellor allocated £750m to be shared amongst charities. And except for hospices, Citizens Advice, St John Ambulance and a few others, the bulk of the funding will be reserved for smaller charities, leaving many of the larger ones to fend for themselves.
It’s no secret that Conservatives have always preferred that part of the sector that sticks to its knitting (read: small, local sticking-plaster charities that have no spare capacity for campaigning). But the chancellor’s astonishing assertion that we need the “gentleness of charity in our lives at this time”, alongside the government’s refusal to even look at allowing charity staff to volunteer for their employers while furloughed, is yet more frustrating evidence of their utter lack of understanding of the sector and how it operates.
The fact is, charities support the most disadvantaged, the most vulnerable, those on the margins of society. In other words, those individuals that are the least valuable to the economy. But as Debra Allcock-Tyler from the Directory of Social Change points out in our news roundup on page 6, the decision not to adequately fund the sector now is not even good economics, because it will cost the state purse more in the end when it has to foot the bill to care for those that have fallen through the cracks. Such short-sightedness may have been tactically expedient in the past, when impacts of spending decisions took years to filter through, but when time has speeded up like it has at the moment, that’s a risky strategy.
The government has declared that it “can’t save every charity”. But this crisis has made plenty of things possible that were previously unthinkable. When it came to it, there actually was a magic money tree: the government was suddenly able to write off £13bn of NHS debt, and find billions more to prop up the business sector. It could even find beds for those sleeping rough. So if it wanted to, it could find more money for the charity sector.
As I write, we are just hearing the first murmurs about strategy options for an exit from lockdown. People are beginning to dare to hope for a return to some semblance of normality. But we are balanced on a knife-edge. We’ve already seen a number of high-profile businesses fall victim to the crisis: Carluccio’s and BrightHouse have gone bust and airlines have begun laying off staff. How long will it be before the first high-profile charity tragically goes to the wall? The threat is very real. The bigger, scarier question is how many will follow.
History may yet show that this period of peak coronavirus was merely the calm before the storm. The economic and healthcare impacts of prolonged or repeated lockdowns will only pile more suffering on top of that already wreaked by the virus itself. And if our charity sector is in no shape to pick up the pieces, then we are heading for a very bad place indeed.