Paul McNamee: We’re still here. And it’s thanks to you

As we ready for a return to the streets, the battle is not over. We will work to keep vendors safe but we still need customers to come along

It started with Chris Packham. On March 25 he made a short video and posted it on his Twitter feed. Packham laid out the immediate and critical crisis faced by The Big Issue. In the hours following the vice-grip of lockdown, there was no Big Issue for sale, and so no income for our vendors. And potentially, no Big Issue when lockdown lifted. The long-term financial hole that would result, for men and women at the very edge of society, would have been catastrophic.

Packham’s video was simple, heartfelt and direct. He urged people to take subscriptions. He hadn’t been asked to do it and neither was it scripted. He’s a good man who wanted to help.

And something wonderful happened. People listened. First a trickle, then a growing stream of subscriptions were bought. Following Packham other well-known people started to record similar videos, or send messages to their friends, fans and followers. The steady stream became a flood. Retailers offered their help too and we moved into shops. It’s hard to get into good retail spots, and frequently costly. But processes were accelerated and fees waived.

We created a new digital version. We had a raffle! We built a podcast that allowed readers to speak to their vendors, piercing the calcifying shell of loneliness. And vendors spoke through that podcast to their customers. It was a virtual street corner and the resulting messages are a joy to hear.

People saw that vendors needed help and, like Chris Packham, they stood up and helped. Over more than three months, this grew, sales grew and donations were made. And at every turn we were able to support our vendors. As the weeks progressed we’ve detailed how much support, in cash or shopping vouchers or more practical things like laptops to help with training schemes, we’ve been able to hand out. It’s a huge total sum, now nearing half a million pounds.

I can’t name all the individuals and organisations who helped. It would take more than the space we have. Next week, though, we’re going to try to thank as many as we can. I hope we don’t leave anybody out because in the middle of this dark crisis it became clear what The Big Issue meant to so many. And it became clear how the wellbeing of The Big Issue vendors mattered. You changed things and you saved lives.

People saw that vendors needed help and, like Chris Packham, they stood up and helped

Moments of light came unexpectedly. There was something moving, unforgettably so, about seeing social media messages from readers receiving their subscription editions for the first time. It was a simple validation, a bright torch through the fog. Those early, heart-filling moments will remain with me.

As we ready for a return to the streets, the battle is not over. We know so many of our vendors are keen to see so many friends out there again. We’ll help them to be as safe as possible, for them and their customers. But we also know that there is no guarantee of a return to sales volumes. We still need customers to come along.

And we know that in society, problems are circling and growing. Local authorities are facing huge financial black holes. Jobs are less than secure. When it comes to paying off the government debts accrued during lockdown, it’s far from clear who’ll be asked to stand the cheques.

There is work to be done.  We will return to this soon.

For now, there is only one simple message, and that is directed to you for all you have done during this time. Thank you. You fixed things.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue