Taking on hygiene poverty in the time of Covid-19

It's National Hygiene Week. Lizzy Hall, founder of The Hygiene Bank, speaks to The Big Issue about helping people in poverty stay protected from Covid-19

Hands. Face. Space. It’s the slogan the government hopes will help stem the rising tide of Covid-19 cases. As well as imposing new restrictions to limit the virus’s spread, ministers are making an urgent call for Brits to stay on top of thorough hand washing, use of face coverings and social distancing.

But being able to follow the guidance is a privilege for many. The virus doesn’t last long in sunlight, scientists say, but it can linger on indoor surfaces for up to 24 hours. It puts those without the cash to afford cleaning products at a serious disadvantage, and makes access to them a more important public health issue than ever – just as the pandemic-driven recession takes the UK economy into its grip. More than three million people have made new Universal Credit claims since the beginning of lockdown and an unprecedented wave of redundancies is expected when the government’s job retention scheme ends next month. Families across the nation are having to cut back on essentials as they struggle to make ends meet.

And the first things to go, research by The Trussell Trust showed, tends to be hygiene products. When forced to choose between eating for the day and buying toothpaste, most go without brushing their teeth. With more than 14 million people living in poverty in the UK, products to wash hands or wipe down surfaces are simply out of budget for many, while further entrenching the stigma and shame felt by those living in poverty.

The pandemic is shining a light on widening health inequalities and the urgent need for everyone to have access to cleaning products regardless of income. National Hygiene Week, beginning September 14, marks a crucial point in the nation’s fight to suppress the virus.

It was masterminded by grassroots UK network The Hygiene Bank. Founder and Big Issue Changemaker Lizzy Hall previously told The Big Issue that products like soap were not “life or death”. She has since changed her mind.

In summer 2018 the former PR professional and yoga teacher watched Ken Loach’s harrowing I, Daniel Blake, a film showing the reality for those who fall through the cracks of social security. In one scene, a character is caught shoplifting razors, deodorant and period products, despite having already been to a foodbank. It lit a fire in Hall, who sent a WhatsApp message to a group of family and friends in hometown Sevenoaks asking for donations of “the everyday products we take for granted”. Her project quickly picked up momentum and now The Hygiene Bank has over 760 drop-off points across the UK. In just two years the charity has seen around £2.5m of toiletries distributed to 1,115 charities, voluntary groups, schools and local authorities.

Not having access to the things you need to keep yourself clean is “shaming and humiliating,” Hall says. “Because it’s so tied up with how you present yourself aesthetically, it so easily leads to social isolation. It impacts your employment opportunities. It has a real fundamental impact on the way we can be, and stay, a part of society.”

The pandemic drove demand well beyond anything the charity had seen before. As well as more people falling into financial hardship, those who were self-isolating needed support to get the items they’d normally pick up day to day, and key workers – many of whom were working on the front line, at high risk of picking up the virus – found themselves short on time for shopping and facing empty shelves when they went.

People suddenly needed often expensive hygiene products to feel safe

“It all fed into a cycle of poverty that was already difficult to escape,” Hall tells The Big Issue. “In some areas, public transport was cut, making people reliant on smaller suppliers for grocery shopping, where prices can be higher. Being at home more meant utility bills went up. Already low-paid workers were hit hardest by job loss. Every financial pressure was tightened at the same moment when people suddenly needed often expensive hygiene products to feel safe.”

It took the support of brands to keep up the supply of products for those in need. Nearly two thirds of the stock The Hygiene Bank has distributed since its inception was given out during lockdown, totalling around £1.6m in soaps, deodorants, nappies and period products.

The pandemic’s effect on the economy is yet to be fully felt, with one in three firms expected to make redundancies in the coming months. It means National Hygiene Week – planned by the charity before Covid-19 reached British shores – takes on new urgency. They will push their BOGOF message – “two fingers to hygiene poverty, but also encouraging people to buy one, give one,” Hall says. 

The Hygiene Bank has also created educational material for schools and was given the rights to I, Daniel Blake for the week, meaning people at home can download the film for free.

It’s all systems go, and there’s a tricky path ahead as Covid-19, job losses and a failing welfare system crunch down on struggling families. But success for Hall would mean her project ultimately no longer needing to exist. “Until then, we’ll play a part in alleviating one of the major stressors for people, in circumstances none of us could have imagined.”