18 people helped every minute: what Citizens Advice data shows about the year it all changed


CITIZENS Advice warns that debt is the looming problem of the pandemic. A year later, the charity saw a worrying increase in the need for counseling, referrals to food banks and charitable grants.

The charity’s 12 months of pandemic data maps waves of demand for different types of advice during its busiest year. During that time, there were over 60 million views of its self-help advice pages, and its front-line counselors gave individual advice to two million people – 18 people every minute.

Fuel debts and CCJ. The number of people seeking debt advice fell sharply during the first foreclosure. Emergency protections meant they could postpone seeking help while they tackled more immediate everyday problems. Since June, the numbers have continued to increase. There has been a larger increase in the need for charitable support, help with fuel debt, and research around county court judgments (see charts one through three below). Without further action, Citizens Advice expects debt problems to increase.

Wills. In a stark reminder of the human cost of this pandemic, the association has also seen a sharp increase in the number of views of its web pages on wills and deaths. A sharp increase during the first wave of the pandemic was followed by an even larger increase during the winter lockdown, reflecting the higher death toll from the second wave.

Redundancy. In terms of redundancy, Citizens Advice saw a staggering increase in the need for help throughout the first lockdown, but this dipped when the initial extension of the leave scheme extension was hinted at (see graph four).

People’s questions about the leave plan have also changed. From March to May 2020, they were largely busy working and being made redundant while on leave, but as people got used to the program the questions changed to getting a second job. As the third lockdown and homeschooling took place, the focus instead was on whether people could apply to be put on leave (see chart five).

Universal Credit. Demand for the charity’s Help to Claim Universal Credit service reflected the initial surge in benefit claims, which flattened from May. Over the past 12 months, Citizens Advice has observed an increase in the number of people seeking support for applications, with women and those under 35 representing a larger proportion, but a decrease in the proportion of people with disabilities.

The charity, which was formed in response to the outbreak of World War II, was already offering remote counseling before the pandemic and was therefore well placed to adapt as the crisis set in. In 2020, it helped 77% more people by phone, 83% more by online chat, and 41% more by email compared to the previous year.

Alistair Cromwell, Interim CEO of Citizens Advice, said:

“Our data sheds light on how people’s concerns and fears have changed throughout this pandemic.

“This gave us early warnings of the problems to come, and this alarm now signals the return of debt problems as people face the fallout from job losses, lower wages and less stability.

“Behind the numbers are the people who have been rocked by a wave of problems triggered by the pandemic. Our frontline counselors will continue to be there to support them, but as a nation we must ensure that no one is left behind on the road to recovery. “

The stories behind the data:

Lisa, 43, from Surrey, has worked in the travel industry for most of her life but in March she was told to protect herself and take time off. In October, she was fired when her team was reduced from nearly 50 to five.

She said:

“For the first time in my life, I had to apply for benefits. My Universal Credit and Job Seeker Allowance do not cover all of my bills. There is always something that I am not able to pay in full. I am now in house tax arrears and overdue on a loan.

“I don’t always have the means to buy food and I really worry about how I’m going to survive.

“Citizens Advice has helped me access food and energy stamps and helps me pay off my debts.

“I apply for jobs every day, but for every job, about 100 people apply. It’s such a tough time, and I just hope I can find a job and get my life back on track.

In 2019, Kish quit her job to become her mother’s full-time caregiver. Her husband’s income as an independent security guard covered their expenses, but in March 2020, her job dried up.

She said:

“At the end of April, we realized that my husband wouldn’t have a job, so in desperation, we applied for universal credit.

“When we got our first payment, we realized we wouldn’t have enough money to pay all of our bills and buy food.

“We had to turn to one of our children, who is lucky enough to work, and ask for help. Our daughter started paying our energy bill, but we still got nothing after we paid for everything. We cut everything, we don’t buy candy, we didn’t buy new clothes, nothing!

“Due to such a drop in our income, we now have rent arrears of just under £ 800. Luckily our accommodation manager is understanding and has a £ 10 per month repayment plan in place.

Joe Michna, Director of Citizens Advice Hartlepool, said:

“Certainly from my perspective this has been the most difficult and difficult time in my 36 years as an advisor.

“We not only faced the challenge of adapting to giving advice primarily over the phone and email, but there has also been a huge shift in the level of fear, uncertainty, anxiety and depression with which people contact us. Sometimes they hope for push-button solutions that just aren’t there.

“Initially our most active areas were leave and self-employment, labor law and universal credit, but it was the sharp reduction in debt investigations that was the biggest surprise.

“In hindsight, there were schemes like payment holidays, but the debt did not go away, and now we are seeing a constant reversal of that trend.”

Charts One to Three – The Rise of Individual Debt Counseling Problems

Figure Four – Pageviews of Redundancy Self-Help Tips Pages

Chart Five – The Changing Leave Questions

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