Huge response to Age UK survey shows TV more of a lifeline than ever for our older population – yet introducing a new over-75s TV licencing scheme in August would jeopardise it
As the BBC Board prepares to meet and discuss the future of the free over-75s TV licence scheme Age UK has reached out to the public with a survey about their use of television during the pandemic.
The Charity asked how important TV is to people at the moment, while normal life is still very much on hold, and the enthusiastic response was a resounding ‘more than ever’: a massive 81,240 people told Age UK that TV was more important to them since the outbreak, in excess of nine in ten respondents to the question.
The survey also found that many older people have relied on TV during lockdown as their main source of news and information about the virus – so crucial at this challenging and frightening time. Among 49,752 of those who replied to a question about what they valued TV for at the moment 45,046 said it for news generally and 38,817 for information about the outbreak.
Many older people also took the opportunity offered by the survey to say how tough life is for them while Covid-19 continues to pose a threat; how much positive difference their TV makes to their ability to ‘keep carrying on’; and how unfair and difficult it would be for them if the free TV licence for over-75s was to go.
The Charity says this shows it’s crucial that the free over-75s TV licence scheme stays in place, so nothing gets in the way of older people’s ability to watch and enjoy television at a time when we are not yet out of the woods with the virus and given the over-75s are known to be at mortal risk if they are unlucky enough to contract it.
Older people’s heartfelt comments to Age UK included the following:
“I am in permanent pain and watching tv is such a great help in distracting (me)… it relieves this pain and stress. I haven’t been out since March 9th which was my 82nd birthday so please have a heart and help us to recover.” Maureen
“I live alone & have no family at all. Had to have my little dog put to sleep in May. The TV goes on as soon as I wake up in the morning and do not turn it off before 2.30 am. It is my only company. I would miss it very much and the price of the licence is so expensive.” Frances
“I had a fall in April this year and fractured my hip. The pandemic came so I was more isolated and television was a connection to what was going on in the world. I live alone so TV became not a luxury but a lifeline. I grapple with my mental health panic attacks. TV is like a companion and helps me cope with what life throws at me.” Edna
“I am an 87-year-old army veteran. My TV is vital to me, especially during these difficult times.” John
“I am a widower of 80 years, an ex-army veteran who gave 47 years to Queen and Country, and live alone…I feel I have been slapped in the face by this Government…only because I have never claimed any benefits in my life.” Charles
The free licence has been a highly valued, universal entitlement for the over-75s which has helped millions to sustain their quality of life into late old age. Research for Age UK shows that even before the lockdown television was the main form of company for two in every five aged 75 plus and nine out of 10 in this age group watch TV every day. It is particularly important for the 1.8 million over-75s who live alone – many of whom may well struggle to bear the additional cost of a TV licence on a single income – and the 1.5 million over-75s who are sometimes or often lonely.
More than 950,000 people aged 70 plus in England (12%, one in eight) have been on the shielded patient list for Covid-19 and continue to live very restricted lives. Although restrictions are now being gradually eased they will still be spending almost all their time at home and likely to be advised by their GPs to remain extremely cautious.
In addition to this shielded group there are hundreds of thousands more older people who live with someone who is highly vulnerable, or who are struggling to get through the pandemic because of their mental and physical health problems. These over-75s too are likely to be mostly confined within their own four walls, without much contact with family and friends, for the foreseeable future or until a viable vaccine becomes available, if one ever does. The TV is unbelievably precious to many as a result.
The plan the BBC announced last year was for TV licences for the over 75s to be means-tested from June 2020, so they would only continue to be free for older people receiving Pension Credit. However, the BBC agreed to delay the implementation of this scheme until at least August 2020, because of the pandemic. The Board is meeting again soon and is expected to discuss whether to go ahead in August or not. Age UK’s view is that this is still too early for some over-75s, especially those who are shielding or who are otherwise clinically vulnerable.
More generally, Age UK is worried that if the BBC’s new scheme were to be introduced at any time it would be catastrophic for millions of older people who rely on their TV at the best of times, with the most vulnerable forced to cut back on essentials to make ends meet, or lose out on TV altogether.
A key reason is because two fifths of the older people on very low incomes who are entitled to Pension Credit – about 590,000 over-75s – aren’t getting it. Some don’t know they can claim, many struggle to apply and others feel embarrassed about needing help. These pensioners are some of the poorest in our society and if the BBC’s charging plan ever came into force they would really struggle. In addition, there are many other over-75s whose income is just too high to qualify for Pension Credit, who would find it difficult or impossible to pay an extra £150+ a year for a licence.
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “The over-75s in our society have been through a torrid time because of the pandemic, and we all know it’s not over yet. Whether or not Covid-19 comes back with a vengeance this autumn it is clear that we will have to live with a level of infection for some time to come, because while the virus has been suppressed it has not been eliminated. As people in late old age are at the greatest risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if they contract it this means our over-75s are going to have to be cautious and stay safe at home as much as they reasonably can.
“TV is extremely important to many older people at the happiest of times but it has taken on a whole new meaning at this time of danger and crisis, when access to authoritative information matters so much.”
“Judging from our survey, many older people are hugely appreciative of how well our broadcasters have kept them informed during the pandemic, helping them to make sense of the frequent changes to the Government guidance so they can be confident of doing the right thing for themselves, the NHS and others around them.
“It would be a tragedy if some of these older people lost the support, information and companionship they receive from their TV come August because they can no longer afford to buy a licence under the BBC’s new scheme. I really would worry for the mental health of some older people if this was to happen, because our survey has shown that it means everything and is what enables them to carry on.”
“While Covid-19 continues to hang like a shadow over our older population, which it will do for the foreseeable future, it would be unbelievably cruel to scrap free TV licences for the over-75s. That’s why now, more than ever, it is time for the BBC and the Government to sit down and agree a way forward which safeguards these older people’s access to TV.”