Social Justice

Food banks: 'Fourth emergency service should be on isolation exemption list'

The UK’s second largest food bank network called for the government to add food bank workers to the list of ‘critical’ service workers exempt from restrictions.

Food banks have called on the government to exempt their workers from self-isolation rules, as concerns mount that the ‘pingdemic’ could disrupt access to emergency food parcels.

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), the UK’s second largest food bank group representing over 500 independent organisations, urged the government to ring-fence services by adding food bank staff and volunteers to the list of critical workers exempt from 10-day isolation rules.

IFAN’s calls came after the government added a raft of industries to the exempt list this week – energy, waste, water, vets, border control, local government, food production and supply – but not food bank volunteers or staff.

“As poverty grips so many communities across the UK, food bank teams too often provide the fourth emergency service to people unable to afford basic essentials,” Sabine Goodwin, IFAN coordinator, told The Big Issue.

“Adding food bank volunteers and workers to the self-isolation exemption list is critical to keep their emergency food services running in the here and now,” she added.

Almost 690,000 people were instructed to self-isolate for 10 days by the NHS Test and Trace app in the week to July 21, government data showed, after Covid cases jumped.

They’ve forgotten about us again. We are criticalSam Gilchrist, West Northumberland Food Bank

While Goodwin said an exemption for food bank volunteers was critical in the short term, she argued only policy changes would end the need for food banks.

“A first step would be for the government to prevent yet more people from falling into poverty by cancelling the impending cut to Universal Credit,” she said.

Sam Gilchrist, manager of West Northumberland Food Bank, is currently self-isolating after coming into contact with someone infected with coronavirus.

While her self-isolation has not yet disrupted their food parcel delivery service, she urged ministers to add food bank workers onto the list “so that [they] don’t have to skate on thin ice.”

West Northumberland Food Bank, an IFAN member, home-delivers roughly 80 emergency food parcels a week.

It covers a dispersed geographical area spaced over three towns. Rural food banks are particularly vulnerable to self-isolation disruption.

“If [self-isolation] expands to our logistics team it would be a struggle,” Gilchrist told The Big Issue, adding: “99.9 per cent of what we do is done by an army of volunteers and it really deserves some recognition.”

The government criteria for exempted staff is people working in “critical elements of national infrastructure”, which Gilchrist said should include the volunteers that keep her food bank going.

“We are critical,” she said. “They’ve forgotten about us again. Don’t forget that we’re here, we should be on the critical workers’ list as well.”

The latest concerns build on frustrations from food bank workers about not being prioritised alongside other frontline workers in the Covid vaccine rollout.

Gilchrist echoed calls for the government to invest in long-term structural policies to drive down poverty. “I think we’re going to have a bit of a tsunami when that [£20-a-week Universal Credit] uplift ends,” she said.

The exemption list will run until August 16 when all fully-vaccinated people will no longer need to self-isolate.

The government was contacted for comment but did not respond in time for publication.

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