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Councillors warn of debt and mental health impact of lockdown

HUNDREDS of local families are struggling to cover the cost of food and fuel, a council committee has heard, with concerns that lockdown is tipping people into debt and mental health issues. A “food and fuel poverty emergency” like that seen during the first wave of Covid-19, was outlined to members of the Rural Strategic Policy Committee (SPC) this week. Bernie Haugh, Senior Executive Officer, Rural and Community Development, said 375 families and individuals now need emergency food and fuel support.

“Heat and lighting costs are increasing as more people spend time at home under the Level 5 restrictions, school and childcare closures result in more families having to meet additional food needs,” she outlined. “Older people are struggling to meet fuel costs and that’s worsened by the lack of alternative heated spaces. They would have gone to libraries or shopping centres, that’s no longer available to them. Missing fuel payments creates additional pressure. Where a family is cut off and require more funds for a reconnection, or a deposit, this further impacts on their ability to cover other necessities like food”.

West Clare’s Councillor Cillian Murphy warned of the long-term impact of the lockdown. “I’m starting to hear of a growing amount of people who would have been reliant on weekend work and seasonal, casual employment to make ends meet,” he said. “They’re now falling behind on their rent and I think there’s another situation coming. Food and fuel is certainly very immediate, but something bigger is coming down the track and that’s going to be an even bigger problem.”

Niamh O’Callaghan, business and commercial representative said that people seemed to be suffering more than ever. “It’s not confined to one socio-economic group,” she said. “It’s from the cradle to the grave. Being at home with the kids is driving some people mad, not getting any respite. People are calling it ‘Groundhog Day’. Without putting mental health supports into place now, we’ll run into big problems in the months and years to come. It’s a very urgent thing.”

Farming representative, Denis Tuohy, urged people to seek help. “The farming community is badly affected,” he said. “Certainly mental health is going to be a big issue. We’re normally a couple of minutes on the phone to farmers, now it could be an hour or an hour and half just talking, and that’s fine. One of the Macra groups have a campaign going to get every farmer to ring a neighbour and that’s great. There is a support service there for farmers, it’s confidential and that’s a big thing. You speak to someone outside the county.”

The plight of rural bachelors was raised by Councillor Pat Burke who said most of their day-to-day interests were suspended. “There are so many categories of people suffering,” he said. “The pressures are horrendous and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. People are really starting to struggle. The bachelor farmer might now want to swap with the busy parent and vice versa.”

Chairperson, Councillor Pat Hayes  said, “375 families in need to support with food and fuel costs is a challenge in itself and it looks like the emergency response will have to continue.” Party colleague Councillor Joe Killeen commended the response to-date, but said he too was aware of cases where people are suffering.

Ms Haugh urged people falling behind on payments to seek the supplementary welfare allowance. “It’s very important that people engage with that until they get back on top of their bills,” she said.

She also outlined the funding being accessed to support those in need, as well as efforts to keep raising the issue at national level. She thanked councillors for their contributions through the General Municipal Allowance (GMA).

About Fiona McGarry

Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald. Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti. She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at NUI Galway. If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at fmcgarry@clarechampion.ie or telephone 065 6864146.

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