New research from Citizens Advice has revealed that over 13 million people have already been unable to pay, or expect to be unable to pay, at least one bill because of the coronavirus outbreak. Of these, almost 11 million have missed or expect to miss a bill that would leave them vulnerable to severe consequences - including eviction, bailiff enforcement or disconnection - when Covid-19 financial protections end.
Some sectors, including energy, water and mortgages, have established frameworks for helping people out of debt in a sustainable way. Others, including the private rented sector and local authorities, do not.
According to its research, conducted by Opinium among 2,016 nationally representative UK adults, the charity says that those most at risk of severe consequences include:
- 2.6 million private renters who have missed a rent payment already or expect to do so owing to coronavirus. This leaves them at risk of eviction - and possible homelessness - once the government's pause on possession action ends in just eight weeks, on 25 June.
- 7.2 million people who have missed a council tax payment already or expect to do so owing to coronavirus. While face-to-face bailiff recovery is currently suspended during lockdown, a build up of arrears could lead to heavy-handed enforcement from cash-strapped councils once lockdown ends.
- 7.4 million people who have already missed or expect to miss a mobile phone or broadband payment. While telecoms companies have put in place measures to support customers with missed bills during lockdown, being in arrears after this time could lead to disconnection. This is at a time when people are relying on their phones and internet to work, learn and stay in touch with loved ones.
People facing the greatest health risk from coronavirus - those who are in the government's categories of 'increased risk' or 'extremely vulnerable' to the illness - are three times as likely to have fallen behind on a bill.
Also more likely to have fallen behind on a bill are people in insecure work - either agency workers or those on zero-hours contracts - who are around three times as likely to have missed a bill payment than other workers. Those under 40 are over 4 times as likely to have fallen behind on a bill than those over 40.
Lucretia Thomas, a project advisor at Citizens Advice Enfield, said:
"This pandemic has had a devastating effect on households. Many families that we see are in insecure employment and have lost income during the lockdown.
"They're telling us that their household expenses have increased as they stay at home to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
"While rent still has to be paid, we're seeing landlords insisting that arrears are cleared quickly and threatening tenants with eviction. People are concerned about how they will reduce their arrears to prevent eviction after this crisis has passed.
"Renters should be protected from harassment by their landlords or agents, and have a roof over their heads during this challenging time and beyond."
Dame Gillian Guy, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice, said:
"The government's comprehensive measures have, for now, eased the financial burden for lots of households across the country. But millions still have reason to fear the looming financial cliff edge when these protections end.
"No one should lose their home, or have bailiffs chasing council tax payments, because of debts built up during the pandemic. Just as the lockdown restrictions will need to be eased gradually to prevent a second wave of the virus, we also need a transition out of the financial protections to avoid a new wave of hardship.
"The government must take strong action to prevent millions going over the financial cliff edge, ensure people are helped out of debt and so support the economic recovery."
The charity is calling for urgent government action to extend the protections for those most likely to suffer punitive enforcement.
- For tenants in the private rented sector, the charity is calling on the government to fast-track the abolition of section 21 'no fault' evictions, temporarily make the mandatory 'rent arrears' grounds for eviction discretionary, and take measures to ensure private renters are given the opportunity to make up any payments they miss as a result of coronavirus.
- For council tax debts, Citizens Advice is calling for the government to provide local councils with financial support to offer payment holidays for people struggling to pay their council tax bills. This would mean councils could still afford vital services while not adding further pressure to residents affected by Covid-19.
- For telecoms customers, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Ofcom should take action to make sure that the current voluntary protections are continued after the lockdown ends and ensure no one is disconnected because of bills built up during lockdown.