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UK 'sleep-walking' into personal debt crisis, warns charity

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is ‘sleep-walking’ into a personal debt crisis with the number of people in severe problem debt topping a million due to the coronavirus pandemic, charity StepChange has warned.

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A further 3 million people are at risk of joining the 1.2 million people in severe financial difficulty, according to StepChange research published on Thursday, with 5.6 million people already in arrears or borrowing to make ends meet.

The charity defines severe problem debt as meeting at least three of its indicators, including falling behind on essential bills or using credit to make debt repayments.

“This report paints a picture of a nation sleep-walking into a debt crisis,” Phil Andrew, CEO of debt charity StepChange, said, warning that protective measures by the government and banks had not kept up with the situation.

“The result is a spiraling number of people being plunged into debt due to Covid-19. And the worst is yet to come.”

Earlier this month the government extended measures rolled out in the crisis to support jobs and incomes, including its furlough job protection scheme, while regulators told banks to extend loan repayment holidays of up to six months.

StepChange urged the government to further extend support, including help paying local taxes, and to fund interest-free loans, warning the ongoing lockdown to curb a second wave of the virus would exacerbate the debt problem.

While official data has shown that many people have borrowed less and saved more during lockdowns, StepChange warned that millions who had lost work or taken pay cuts are struggling with mounting debts.

Nearly 15 million people have been negatively financially impacted by the pandemic, StepChange estimated, around 30% of the adult population.

The charity, whose research included a poll of 3,297 adults in September, said almost one in five of those affected was experiencing hardship such as a single meal a day for two or more days or going without heating or electricity for five or more days.

A finance ministry spokesperson said the government had put unprecedented support in place but was aware some people may need extra help, adding it had given nearly £40m of extra funding to debt advice providers this year and had increased the welfare safety net.

Reporting by Iain Withers; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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