I was in two minds whether to see Ken Loach’s latest film for reasons that will soon become clear. The film explores the life of unemployed carpenter Daniel, recovering from a heart attack and the recent death of his wife, and Katie, a young homeless mum with two children, displaced to Newcastle from her London home following a retaliatory eviction.
Their struggles navigating the benefits system and the extremes they are driven to when it fails to support them are heartbreaking to watch. I have no experience of these extremes, but only because my Mum and girlfriend helped and housed me when I left hospital after my stroke. But I re-lived my own attempts to navigate the cruel sea of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) during the film. Highlights, if that’s the right word, captured so well included hours spent on hold whilst Vivaldi’s Four Seasons repeats, the anger and frustration when yet another ‘letter with a window’ requests information already provided and the difficulties in completing forms when you can’t use an ‘internet’.
But Daniel’s visits to the job centre were the most upsetting to watch and remain the most spirit crushing experiences of my life. Unlike Daniel, before my stroke I’d experienced most of the advantages in life, it therefore came as a surprise to be treated so badly by advisers and assessors as I tried to prove my ‘worth’. I usually succeeded when they found out what was wrong with me (and that it wasn’t my fault), but one surprise was being sanctioned for delaying to notify the government about my stroke. At this time I was sleeping constantly, having terrifying seizures, I could barely read or write and I was too afraid to leave my girlfriend’s flat for fear of another stoke. But it was my fault for this delay and, ironically, I returned to work the very week that my ESA – designed to support you until your fit enough to return to work – was finally paid, some seven months after my stroke.
During interviews inevitably comparing I, Daniel Blake with his earlier environmental health masterpiece, Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach has commented that he’d rather live in Cathy’s world because the welfare state was largely intact, society was more cohesive and there was a greater sense of social responsibility. Perhaps the UK still has one of the better welfare systems in the world, but my own experience reminds of how quickly you can fall and how large and numerous its cracks are. Without the help of my girlfriend and Mum I would have far more in common with Daniel and Katie.
In conclusion, the film is a stark reminder that we, as EHPs and citizens, could, indeed must, do better to safeguard the public’s health. I hope it also reminds us why, instead of accepting what’s happening as inevitable ‘in the current climate’, we should be more angry and ask more questions. Fairer (and evidence-based) alternatives are exemplified by the work of organisations including the New Economics Foundation and the Institute of Health Equity.
With best wishes, Rob