Coronavirus (COVID-19) support in low income households: evaluation

Qualitative research evaluating a range of policies and support that were delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The research looks at how this support impacted on the finances and wellbeing of low income households.

7. Getting information and support

This chapter examines how participants accessed the information and support they needed to help them navigate the pandemic. It covers overarching learning about how participants accessed information, the barriers they encountered and what they thought would help going forward.

Key findings

  • Households used a range of ways to access information about the pandemic and related support. Schools, nurseries and other organisations with whom they had existing relationships were key sources of information about, and gateways to, support.
  • The demand to access services online was not new to the pandemic, but more people found it the most convenient way to access assistance online. A lack of digital connectivity primarily affected those lacking proficiency in English, those who reported living in areas of poor connectivity, and those in severe financial hardship.
  • Some participants had contacted local authorities directly by phone or email for information about support, but there was little awareness of, or interest in using, the National Assistance Helpline.
  • Accessing information and support was hardest for families who did not have pre-established relationships with schools, nurseries or other organisations. They were more likely to be households with very young children, or those without them.
  • Similarly, where participants had limited English this acted as a significant barrier to both finding out about and accessing the financial or other support that might have been available.
  • For those with existing claims and stable circumstances, the Universal Credit system broadly worked well during the pandemic. Those making new claims often faced significant waits for payment, particularly in the first lockdown.
  • Claims for disability benefit, and access to the associated assessments, caused specific issues. Families found themselves dealing with system delays and frustrations, with financial as well as practical consequences.
  • Families with additional support needs had received a huge amount of support from specialist third sector organisations, encompassing practical, emotional and financial assistance.

Accessing information and advice

How participants accessed information and advice

Most households felt they had the basic information that they needed about lockdowns, restrictions and the support available during the pandemic. This information had generally reached them naturally through various channels, without them having to actively search for it.

The UK and Scottish Governments were the main sources of public health-related information and advice, including the dates and details of lockdowns or how the tier system worked. Participants spoke of watching news conferences and of looking for information on Scottish and UK Government websites.

There was minimal awareness of the National Assistance Helpline, which links callers to their Local Authority, and there were no reports of participants using it. Participants were also inclined to think they would not have used it had they known about it.[12] Those who explained why tended to say that their preference was to make direct contact with organisations that were known to them, including their local authority.

Some had made direct contact with their local authority, including to enquire about financial or other support that might be available. Participants with nursery or school age children were likely to say that the schools and nurseries had provided much or most of the information they accessed. This was common across all geographical areas and families in different circumstances. Participants also spoke of looking on Council websites and on occasion of accessing other websites that provide information on state benefits. These included the sites of a number of third sector organisations.

There was also a range of references to social media and primarily Facebook. Some participants had accessed informal information or support through social media groups set up for that purpose. However, there was an awareness that some of the information available through social media may have been inaccurate.

Participants had a clear preference for accessing information from known sources. This included a preference for accessing advice from organisations they already had a positive existing connection with, and that had some degree of understanding of their situation.

I think I'd have gone to someone I knew already, maybe someone I'd met before at the Council ...

Couple with one child.
Urban area with substantial rural areas.

Single people and couples, participants who had lost full-time work, and first time mothers, and especially younger first time mothers, were least likely to have such connections.

Accessing financial support

Universal Credit and other social security payments

The substantial majority of those already in receipt of Universal Credit before the first lockdown, and who had not experienced a change in circumstances that affected their claim, said they had no problems with receipt of payments.

Some participants who experienced a crisis also said they had received a very responsive and supportive service from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). Examples of this included: leaving an abusive relationship; and needing to find money to pay for an immediate family member's funeral.

They went over and above, absolutely over and above ... if it wasn't for them I don't know what would have happened. It was a most unexpected support ... the level of emotional support they put in for our family at that time was amazing.

Lone parent with one child.
Mainly rural area.

Among those applying for Universal Credit for the first time or making a new claim, most aspects were said to have worked well. These included keeping people informed, being contactable and answering queries relatively swiftly. These experiences were reported across a range of different local authority areas and irrespective of household circumstances.

However, some of those making new claims for Universal Credit had encountered problems, especially if making their new claim during the first lockdown. The issues centred on the timescales for receipt of the first payments rather than the application process; participants generally felt that the application process was straightforward but reported waiting 6-8 weeks for payment. Such timescales could leave people paying off debts that had accrued in the meantime, sometimes with their first payment.

I think probably I never sourced anything like that because I don't really know how to go about it because I've always worked, so I don't really know what I would have been entitled to. I don't even really know where I would have contacted.

Couple with two children.
Urban area.

Some had put off making that first claim. This was generally because they thought the situation they found themselves in, and the pandemic and lockdowns more generally, would be reasonably quickly resolved. They felt that coping for a few weeks or months was preferable to engaging with a system that would be under huge pressure. Some reflected that they would have acted differently had they been aware of the length of time over which they would be affected.

Accessing other COVID-related support

Where households had been in receipt of additional, COVID-related payments, they almost always reported that they had simply appeared in their bank account. As these payments were generally associated with existing eligibility for free school meals, participants with very low incomes, typically in severe financial hardship prior to the pandemic, were most likely to report that this support had been received. Otherwise, there were no particular variations based on area or household circumstances.

The automatic nature of payment was identified as beneficial by some, who felt that they would otherwise have missed out on this support. There were occasional references to being asked to complete short forms.

Some participants said they had been able to access one, but not further, round(s) of COVID-related support. This followed the transition from Tax Credits and legacy benefits onto Universal Credit and the subsequent loss of entitlement to passported benefits. These were generally households in moderate financial hardship where someone was in low paid, part-time work.

Only a small number of participants had accessed Self-Isolation Support Grants and they reported no issues or problems with the application process.

Barriers to accessing information, advice and support

Some participants had largely disengaged from news about COVID-19 as the pandemic progressed, finding it added to the stress and anxiety that they were feeling. In these cases, information might still come through partners or family who were continuing to engage and/or through social media.

Some participants were less proficient in English. This, combined with their lack of understanding (and experience) of how the benefits system works, or how to access the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, could result in major barriers to accessing the necessary support.

They write this (in a way) I can't understand ... sometimes I get a person to explain, but sometimes I just think ... oh I don't know. Asking, asking ... I don't like that. But I only ask if I know ... so maybe there was other stuff ... I'm sorry, I don't know.

Couple with three children.
Parents with limited English. Urban area

Participants without children (or with children of pre-nursery age) typically did not have existing links to schools or nurseries. They were also more likely to struggle to access relevant advice. They were often less familiar with engaging with the 'system' and often had few existing links with other potential sources of information and advice such as local authorities and third sector organisations.

Some were also reluctant to ask for help or had assumed that they would not be able to access the support available. Based on their reports, it appeared that two of these households without children were experiencing severe financial hardship both before and during the pandemic. In another case, the loss of employment during the first lockdown had left them in severe financial hardship.

Ongoing or new assessment for a disability benefit

A number of families have been going through the process of diagnostic assessment for a disability or neurodevelopmental condition during the pandemic. While an emotional and challenging experience at any time, the pandemic had tended to make this process even more difficult and distressing. This was due to substantial delays and cancellations of both diagnostic assessments and then the assessment and processing of their benefit entitlements. Those experiencing these problems included households just above and below the moderate financial hardship threshold, as well as those living in serious or severe financial hardship. It was extremely challenging for all those participants involved, irrespective of the area in which they lived or other household characteristics.

In the context of COVID, these problems were often heightened by increased outgoings – either to keep people safe or to attend assessment processes – and delays in accessing the very financial support they needed. In financial terms, this impact was greatest on participants living in serious, and more especially severe, financial hardship.

I got into debt, I was borrowing. It took six months for the PIP to come through and that was backdated but there were times – yes – when I was hand to mouth. And of course when that money came through we had a lot to pay back so we never got any further forward.

Lone parent with a neurodevelopmental condition.
Mainly rural area.

For those required to go through a diagnostic assessment for a disability or neurodevelopmental condition, along with the subsequent assessment for financial support, a more rapid and responsive service would have helped them deal with significant additional pressures at an already challenging time.

Digital connectivity

Before the pandemic, many interviewees already had a preference for online communication with public bodies, using smart phones or tablets. This continued during the various lockdowns and included accessing information about support available and how to apply for it.

For most participants, this worked reasonably well, with references made to local authorities responding to e-mails, even if there were some delays. This contrasted with reports relating to trying to make contact by phone with one specific local authority and other organisations where participants reported issues such as phones ringing out.

However, a minority of households were not digitally connected. This situation affected a small sample of interviewees and appeared to be associated with a combination of some or all of the following factors: the household experiencing severe financial hardship; a lack of proficiency in English within the household; and interviewees living in an area with poor connectivity (whether urban or rural).[13]

Where connectivity was an issue, the impact was significant and resulted in:

  • Difficulties in accessing basic information and good quality advice
  • It being harder to have tailored advice with follow up, which included asking and having key questions answered
  • Children being unable to access home learning.

Role of the third sector

Occasional references were made to accessing general information and advice services provided by the third sector, although there were connected reports of long waiting times and aspects of casework not being followed up. Participants who had experienced a drop in work-related income, and sometimes the loss of employment, were most likely to have referred to having approached a mainstream advice service. Although they generally understood the enormous pressures facing the advice sector, waiting to receive advice had occasionally had negative consequences.

If you need some money help, it probably needs to be quick ... I'm not blaming them but if you have to wait for months then things have probably gotten worse and you're maybe just best to try and sort it yourself in the first place ...

Couple with three children.
Mainly rural area.

Some participants whose family had additional or complex needs said they had received crucial support from specialist organisations working with people with specific support needs. The specialist services that participants referred to included: carers' organisations; organisations working with people with mental health problems; and organisations helping lone parents or people escaping domestic abuse.

Participants that had made use of these specialist services included families whose household income had been adversely affected directly by the pandemic as well as those whose household income had not been affected directly.

These services generally provided a combination of emotional and practical support that covered:

  • Giving information and advice on eligibility for financial support. This mainly focused on social security payments, but checks were also carried out to ensure any COVID-specific support that participants were entitled to had been received.
  • Practical assistance with applying for Universal Credit and other social security benefits, especially following a change in circumstances, such as a relationship breakdown, the loss of work or the onset of limiting health conditions
  • Help with applying for one-off grants from local authority discretionary budgets or charitable bodies. The latter, for example, included securing funds to make a garden secure for disabled child
  • Ongoing and tailored support services including: regular welfare checks; being available as a listening ear; and helping connect people with others in similar situations, including through formal or informal peer support networks.

In terms of the practical assistance with applying for benefits, this included reports of sustained assistance over a long period, where the persistence and doggedness of the organisation were much appreciated. This was closely associated with enabling people to access disability-related benefits and deal with disability or health-related assessment processes.

Participants reported that these organisations had been quick and flexible in their response to their needs. This was at a time when interviewees would have struggled to find the energy to deal with people who did not understand their situation. Participants reported staff going above and beyond for them, showing empathy for the pressures they were facing, and quite literally being lifesavers.

What could have been done differently

Participants were asked whether they had any suggestions about how their information and support-related needs might have been better met during the pandemic.

Providing financial support for those undergoing disability assessments: One suggestion was that there should be a starting assumption that someone starting down the diagnostic assessment route will be found to be eligible for support. This should be backed up by prompt and non-repayable temporary financial support. This should cover the assessment period as well as any period relating to the assessment of a subsequent benefit claim.

Rapid payment of new Universal Credit Claims: Some of those making a new Universal Credit claims experienced financial crisis because of delays in receiving their first payment. In the event of any delays in assessing new claims, some form of non-repayable bridging payment would have been welcomed.

Rapid access to mainstream third sector advice services: Some people's first choice had been to contact a third sector advice agency when looking for benefit or other financial information and advice. Although they often went on to access advice from other agencies, this was under their own auspices. Capacity to deal with surges in demand in these 'first port of call' services would have reduced the risk of people going without the advice they needed.

More accessible information for those with limited English: Being able to access (more) information and support in their first language would have helped those with limited English. The type of information and support required was broad ranging, but there had been particular difficulties accessing information about the support available to those who were self-employed or were small business owners.

Case studies

The case studies that follow pick up on a number of the key themes set out in this chapter.

The Kinghorn Family's story focuses on the key role that third sector organisations played in responding to crisis and helping people cope with the challenges that the pandemic, and life more widely, could bring.

The Stewart Family's story looks at the range of challenges that families faced during the pandemic, including in relation to their changing needs. It considers the role that specialist advice agencies can play in helping those with complex and changing needs to navigate the benefits system.

The Kinghorn Family

Jo and her three children live on the outskirts of Edinburgh. They rent a three- bedroom flat from a private landlord. Jo and her partner had been struggling for some time, and she asked him to move out two days before the first lockdown. By the time he left things had got very tense and they parted on very bad terms. He emptied out most of their joint account just before he went.

He is an experienced kitchen fitter, and often worked long hours. The family was used to having a good wage coming in, and they also got Working Tax Credits. She was applying for Universal Credit for herself and the children just as the first lockdown was introduced. She applied online, and generally found that OK, but there were a few things she wanted to talk through with someone, including when her first payment might come through.

A close friend knew about what was going on and gave her the number of a third sector organisation which had helped her out in the past. Jo didn't necessarily think of herself as someone who would need help but was starting to feel quite scared. The children were at home all day and were also readjusting to their dad having gone. She had virtually no money, and no real idea when any Universal Credit would start to come through.

She describes making that first call to the third sector organisation as her best decision in a long while. The call went to an answer machine, but someone got back within the hour. They explained that they were all working from home, but that they would still do all they could to help. It was clear straightaway that they understood her situation and were not going to judge. That lifted a huge weight off her shoulders.

Over the next couple of weeks they helped her chase her Universal Credit claim and suggested she got in touch with her landlord to explain the situation. They also referred her to a food bank and sent some presents for her son's birthday. Just as she was starting to feel a bit more positive, her fridge freezer stopped working. They applied for a small grant which came through within days and she had a new fridge within about a week.

Jo received her first Universal Credit payment around 6 weeks after she had first applied. By the time she had cleared her energy and mobile bills, paid back money she had borrowed from a friend and bought the essentials, the back payment she received was gone. Although things remain really tough, she at least now knows how much they have to live on, and that money will come through regularly. She has been in contact with the DWP about her benefits claim a few times since, and it's all been fine. Any issues have been dealt with quickly.

She is still in contact with the organisation that supported her through the worst times and has been attending one of their lone parent support groups. Once the necessary checks have been done, she's going to start doing some volunteer work for them.

The Stewart Family

Neil is the lone parent of his 9 year-old daughter. They live in a small town in the west of Scotland. They have a three-bed terraced house which he bought around 5 years ago when he inherited some money from a grandparent. He has a small mortgage, but the monthly payments are low.

Neil was employed as a warehouse assistant for an online retailer but often experienced periods of extreme anxiety that meant he eventually he had to give up work. Not long afterwards, at the age of 34, he was diagnosed as being autistic. That helped make sense of a lot of things.

Neil and his daughter were getting by on Universal Credit. Money was very tight though, even after moving to an interest-only mortgage. Neil had to sell his car and when the boiler broke down, he borrowed money from a loan company.

Neil's mother lives on the other side of town and has always been a huge support, but it was only during the first lockdown that she realised how bad her son's financial situation was. Neil agreed to contact a local advice agency, but there was going to be quite a wait. In the end, his mother used her small savings to clear the loan.

In a strange way, those first few months were quite a good time for them. His daughter had been struggling with school for some time and really took to lockdown. She didn't really engage with the work the school were providing, but they spent time exploring things she is passionate about, including marine ecology. After his own diagnosis, he suspects that his daughter is also autistic.

Over the early summer of 2020 it became clear that his mother was not well. They made various attempts to get her help but felt like they were getting nowhere. When she was finally called for appointments, they had to take taxis as her mobility was deteriorating rapidly and the bus wouldn't have felt safe. She was diagnosed with a degenerative condition just before the second lockdown.

Throughout this time, Neil and his mother looked into whether either or both of them might be entitled to any additional financial support but found it all both complicated and overwhelming. In desperation, they did a web search and found out about a third sector organisation with a specialist disability welfare advice service. One of their benefits advisors has worked doggedly on their behalf over many months. His mother now receives Personal Independence Payments, and she received a substantial back payment in the end. They are still trying to get him some extra help, but even one of them having more coming in has taken the pressure off.

Neil is hopeful that he too might get some extra help and puts that all down to the help they received from the benefit advisor. He is clear that they would not otherwise have been able to battle with the system at what was already a hugely stressful time.

When his family is ready, he's also determined that his daughter will get any extra support she needs, but they've all agreed that they need to get their finances sorted first.



Back to top