Rural hardship has grown under life in lockdown

Without targeted help, people living in rural areas are more likely to be placed at risk of ending up facing financial hardship than their urban counterparts as governments wind down their Covid support measures.

Dr Jayne Glass of the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC

That was the finding of a major study into how social conditions in the countryside have been affected by the pandemic carried out in three rural areas of the UK.

The study, which focused on the isle of Harris, East Perthshire and Northumberland, was conducted jointly by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), Newcastle University and the Impact Hub Inverness

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It found that even although there had been fewer Covid-19 cases in rural areas - due to lower population densities and less mixing on public transport – a larger reliance on tourism and hospitality employment had led to a severe economic impact during the lockdowns. The researchers said that this meant that as government support schemes ended rural residents would be more vulnerable to the economic situation.

“The pandemic amplified the impacts of digital exclusion in rural areas, impacting on many people’s experiences during the lockdowns, from children’s ability to engage in home-based online learning, to people’s access to advice and support services in relation to welfare applications,” said lead author, Dr Jayne Glass, from the Rural Policy Centre at SRUC.

While some of the impacts were mitigated by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self Employment Income Support Scheme and through an uplift to Universal Credit, people in rural areas feared growing unemployment and poverty when these are withdrawn:

“There are also many who did not benefit from these schemes, including seasonal, casual and freelance workers and some self-employed people,” said Glass speaking ahead of today’s publication of the report Covd-19 and functional hardship in rural areas.

Difficulties relating to distance, mobility and access, as well as issues of visibility and stigma, were all highlighted as being more severe in small rural communities.

But the report also recognised the support provided by a wide range of formal and informal groups across the public and voluntary sectors:

“Voluntary and community organisations have been crucial in ensuring that hard-to-reach groups have access to financial and other support,” said: Professor Mark Shucksmith, from Newcastle University.

“However, many of these organisations face a challenging future with respect to their financial resources, particularly if council budgets are squeezed further as the National Audit Office has warned, and in respect of their ability to generate income from retail sales or fundraising.”

Polly Chapman, of Impact Hub Inverness, emphasised that it was important that service providers and the voluntary sector in rural areas continued to play a joined-up signposting role which would help to connect their clients with information and advice.

Rebecca Graham, programme manager at the Standard Life Foundation which funded the work, added that areas had been affected differently by the pandemic - but policy designed to deliver tailored support and solutions for rural areas was required to protect people from financial hardship.

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