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How will post-Covid Britain look? For many, like it did in the brutal 19th century | John Harris

While Boris Johnson talks of ‘building back better’, the reality is growing poverty and hunger – and a government that is fuelling them

In December 2019, Boris Johnson was electioneering in Salisbury, where he visited a butcher’s shop and local military veterans’ centre. The same city is also the home of the Trussell Trust, which runs the UK’s largest network of food banks – and Johnson was asked whether anything in the Conservative party’s manifesto might reduce the need for the kind of help it provides. He answered in the affirmative, claiming that helping people with living costs was a personal “crusade”, paying tribute to “everybody who gets involved with running food banks”, but also insisting that “it is wrong that people should be dependent on them”. He then mentioned “cutting national insurance for everyone”, before his punchline: “It is imperative in my view that the next government, if I’m lucky enough to be leading it, tackles the cost of living for everybody in this country. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Then as now, words just tumbled out of his mouth. We all know what happened to the national insurance promise, and if Johnson and his ministers had any credible intention of reducing living costs, any such hope has now been quashed. Instead we’ve had soaring energy bills, higher inflation and the cruel end of the £20-a-week universal credit “uplift” – partially mitigated via changes in the budget aimed at people in employment, but still a grim reality for the 3.4 million people on that benefit who are not in work.

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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