Yorkshire councils gear up to support region's vulnerable as charities warn of hardship and financial difficulties for thousands

Charities have warned that millions of people are at risk of hardship as the nation is plunged into the latest coronavirus lockdown with authorities across Yorkshire gearing up to support the most vulnerable residents.

Residents across Yorkshire are bracing for more weeks of lockdown

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement this week that the severest restrictions were once again having to be imposed to halt the spread of Covid-19 has prompted widespread concerns over the social and economic implications of a third lockdown since March last year.

As many as 26,000 people in North Yorkshire are deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19, meaning their guidance is now to shield at home.

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Organisations contracted by the council have already given out more than 4,500 food parcels and delivered 14,897 prescriptions since the start of the pandemic.

Contracts to 23 volunteer services from the council to assist with support to vulnerable residents were due to end in March.

But they have now been extended to September, and plans are being drawn up to supply volunteers delivering parcels with alternative transport options to navigate roads in bad weather.

North Yorkshire Count Council is planning to roll-out a phone service to shielding residents, and vulnerable people will be contacted by the authority to ensure they have access to food and other essential items.

The head of stronger communities at the council, Marie-Ann Jackson, said: “This isn’t the summer - it’s dark nights, icy roads, we’re a very rural county and we know the winter will bring us additional difficulties.”

Staff at Leeds Council have alerted more than 37,000 vulnerable residents via telephone and text message to the authority’s support services since Monday’s lockdown announcement.

Coun Judith Blake, the leader of the council, said: “We understand this is a particularly anxious and uncertain time for those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to the virus and who have once again been advised to shield.

“Our message to all the people who are shielding right now is help is available if you need it. Continue to take care of your physical and mental health by attending medical appointments, getting outdoors for fresh air and continuing to access your usual care.”

There are concerns that lockdown will mean unemployment levels may rise past the 7.5 per cent predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility, leading to increased poverty levels.

The York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said that up to 500,000 people across the UK will be drawn into poverty after this lockdown if the Government does not permanently increase the temporary uplift of Universal Credit payments, which was put in place to support families during the pandemic, according to its modelling.

Rebecca McDonald, a senior economist at the foundation, said: “It’s possible that come the spring, unemployment could rise even more than expected. The economy is going to be weak, so it doesn’t feel like a good economic decision to cut the benefit as that’s the time money needs to be pumped in to try to secure a strong recovery.”

The Department for Work and Pensions was unable to confirm to The Yorkshire Post whether the Universal Credit uplift of an extra £20 a week for claimants will be extended, or if it will end as planned in March.

Foodbanks are also preparing for an influx of new referrals of people who are struggling to afford food and essential items.

Samantha Stapley, the chief operating officer at The Trussell Trust, said: “The resilience of food banks is nothing short of outstanding.

“It has been extraordinary to witness how almost our entire network continued to serve their local community through the first two lockdowns. We expect this innovative way of working to continue during this lockdown.”

There are growing concerns too about the impact of a third lockdown on mental health services, and that people who need support will not access it for fear of burdening the stretched NHS.

Labour’s Shadow Mental Health Minister, Rosena Allin-Khan, said: “There’s a real sense that people are losing hope, with a long, dark winter ahead. People mustn’t lose hope – the vaccine being rolled out is just around the corner.

“The long-lasting damage to people’s livelihoods is having a massive impact on people’s mental health. Failures to offer adequate support only lead to less compliance with public health guidelines and are fuelling mental health problems across the country. Too many people have been forgotten in this pandemic, despite severe warnings of a mental health crisis.”

Figures from the Mind mental health charity show that 41 per cent of people with mental health problems did not seek help during the first lockdown as they did not think their issues were important enough.

The head of information content at Mind, Rosie Weatherley, said: “The Government recognised the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s

mental health by committing to keeping mental health services fully open throughout the winter months, as well as recognising the need to continue to provide face-to-face support to people with severe mental health problems.

“These commitments made just before Christmas must be delivered throughout the national lockdown, while also protecting people from coronavirus.”

For those struggling with loneliness and isolation, organisations were keen to stress that community support must be imperative.

Kim Leadbeater, the ambassador of the Jo Cox Foundation, which is named after her sister, the Batley and Spen MP who was murdered in 2016, said: “In the first lockdown we saw so many acts of kindness that people did organically and naturally. Let’s get that spirit going again, we’ve seen it dwindle a little bit. If you can safely, check on a neighbour, or put a postcard through their door.”