'We are literally sinking': Britons face hard choices as prices soar

Inflation rose 10.1 per cent in July compared to 2021, with consumer prices growing at their fastest pace since 1982. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - Stacey Smith grabbed some boxes of tea from a low shelf of a London supermarket on Wednesday (Aug 17) and then phoned the neighbour who had asked her to buy them.

"They have gone up 20 pence," she said. "Do you still want them?"

Her neighbour agreed to accept the price increase, something that Smith, a teaching assistant and a single mother of three, has been unable to do with her own shopping. After she bought the tea, she headed to Aldi, a cheaper supermarket, to shop for her family.

In the past months, as food prices have soared in Britain, she has cut down on meat and relied on pasta and sauces instead. Her children have stopped attending swimming lessons, she has limited their trips to the fridge for snacks, and she has turned down their requests for money to spend at the bowling alley.

"We need that money for food," said Smith, who makes 1,200 pounds (about S$2,000) a month. "Before, we were keeping our head just above the water. Now we are literally sinking."

In Britain, inflation rose 10.1 per cent in July compared with a year earlier, with consumer prices growing at their fastest pace since 1982.

Many Britons, especially the most vulnerable, who have borne the brunt of the effects of inflation, braced for more sacrifices: for saying "no" more often to their children, for making more trips to multiple supermarkets to find discounts, for joining lines at the food banks and for making more compromises to their health.

Many Britons are concerned that their leaders have left the country rudderless during the growing economic crisis. The government is embroiled in a leadership transition, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson working out his last few weeks in Downing Street before a successor is announced on Sept 5.

Parliament itself is not in session, and vacation season is in full swing, with Johnson being spotted in Greece over the weekend - his second foreign holiday in recent weeks.

In the meantime, residents are scrambling to cope, often forced to make hard choices.

At Iceland, a low-cost supermarket with an emphasis on frozen food, Tainara Graciano, 51, a housekeeper in London, carried a basket with two cartons of eggs and discounted chicken nuggets that were expiring on the same day. She had cut back on bottled water since prices began spiralling up.

"He drinks a lot," she said of the water, looking at her 11-year-old son as he strolled by. Then she pointed at her half-empty basket and said, "Five months ago, I carried two of those."

Across the street, Arwen Joseph, 47, was shopping for house supplies at the low-cost store Poundland.

Joseph, who is on government benefits and sometimes uses a food bank, said it had been harder to buy healthful food that was compatible with her allergies, which give her severe eczema. As a result, she has cut back on other items.

"We used to have ice cream or bubble tea maybe once a week," said her 9-year-old daughter, Georgia Gold. "Now we haven't had it so much."

Volunteers at food banks say they have been caught off guard and are now struggling to keep up as more people arrive asking for help.

Solomon Smith, who runs the Brixton Soup Kitchen in south London, which provides hot meals and other food bank services to those in need, said the number of people using the service had more than doubled in recent months.

"People are telling us they haven't eaten properly for days," he said. "Some of them have been forced to go into shops to steal. Others don't know if they should pay their gas bills or eat food."

The food bank itself has not escaped the inflation squeeze. It has had to cut back on hot meals and food purchases and has seen public donations dry up, according to Smith.

"We just don't have enough to give to everyone," he said, his voice wavering. "I don't know what is going to happen next week."

People across Britain are confronting similar problems.

At the Blackburn Food Bank, in the north of England, more people with full-time employment are turning up, as wages have not kept up with the inflation.

"People are very shocked that they have to be here," said Gill Fourie, operations manager at Blackburn. "People don't even have gas and electricity to cook," she said, referring to mounting household energy prices that are forecast to climb to 3,500 pounds a year in October, triple what they were a year ago. She added, however, that the facility continued to receive support from the community.

Many Britons, especially the vulnerable who have borne the brunt of the effects of inflation, braced for more sacrifices. PHOTO: REUTERS

Even people who are in less vulnerable situations have had to watch their wallets.

"I would love to get some Mutti, but I cannot afford it," said Melanie McHugh, an actress, as she looked at cans of tomato sauce at her local supermarket in south London. She said she was going to make shakshuka, a vegetable dish that could last for several days. She went for a cheaper brand of sauce.

McHugh, who has stopped buying butter, also grabbed a lower-cost brand of chorizo.

"I am aware that I am lucky," she said. "But I am also aware my habits have changed."

The British government has allocated 15 billion pounds in benefits for the most vulnerable families.

Smith said she had received about 300 pounds this month. She has also stockpiled laundry soap but said that did not ease her worries. She has started thinking of giving up her car and getting another job, as a cleaner, on weekends.

"It's not what I would like to do," she said. "But you have to do what you need to survive."

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