Martin Lewis: 'I sit and cry at the hardship caused by coronavirus'

Donna Ferguson

The money guru Martin Lewis has been in tears “15 or 16 times” since the start of the pandemic lockdown as he struggles to advise families in financial crisis.

It is five years since he was given the label “the most trusted man in Britain” after a pre-EU referendum poll found that 71% of people trusted him when he talked about Europe, putting him ahead of any other public figure. Now, alongside medical and scientific experts, he has again become the man many are turning to for reassurance in a time of crisis.

A “phenomenal” number of people have sought his financial expertise through social media or his website, moneysavingexpert.com, over the past two weeks, he says. But being the man people look to for help is not always easy.

“When you watch the news, they’re interested in telling you what’s happening,” he says. “I’m interested in telling you what you should do. So when someone’s desperate, and it’s someone for whom I don’t have an answer, that’s when I get really upset. That’s when I sit at my desk and I have a little cry. I find it really frustrating. I know I’m meant to be the person who can answer questions – but sometimes there isn’t an answer. And someone’s pleading with me to help them.”

Isolated with his young family at his home in London, he has been clocking up 14-hour days to help workers who face poverty if they follow government advice and stay home.

One heartbreaking plea came from a single mother whose employer insisted she continued with her non-essential job. She was caught between the impossible decision of not being able to afford to feed her children and taking them to work with her. “There are devastating holes in this system,” says Lewis.

He has been battling to convince ministers and civil servants to fill these holes by amending “omissions which are not deliberate”, revising measures which have “unintended consequences” and making important “clarifications” about financial support packages on offer. Last week, for example, the government agreed to change its coronavirus job retention scheme guidance after campaigning by Lewis: firms can now rehire and furlough employees who left their job for a new job, which then fell through due to Covid-19. Lewis explains: “I talk to the powers-that-be, in confidence, [and] I spoke to somebody significant, who I didn’t really have a relationship with before this. I’m trying to find answers.

“Right now, I’m prioritising the bigger and more desperate needs in terms of getting information to try to help people. Many people are facing a destruction of income that is catastrophic for their financial and mental health.”

Related: The Money Saving Expert: how Martin Lewis became the most trusted man in Britain

Despite spending his life fighting for consumers, often speaking in deliberately combative terms about “rip-off” companies, he feels sympathetic to the plight of businesses hit hard by the lockdown. He is urging those who can afford it to accept vouchers instead of refunds for unusable tickets from airlines, theatres and festivals. “We want as few victims of coronavirus as possible, and that means, where we can, we need to show compassion and consideration – even to companies.”

Over the past fortnight, Lewis – who sold his website for more than £80m in 2012 but remains editor-in-chief – has also set up his own fund for charities providing poverty relief during the outbreak.

He has pledged £1.9m of his estimated £128m fortune to the fund, and is calling for more rich donors to join him. “I’m talking to people in charities who are just desperate, saying we want to help people but all our fundraising streams have dried up.”

He hopes to keep workers in at least 400 charities in their jobs, as well as providing emergency funding to those most in need. But on a more emotional level, his donation “was partly to make myself feel better, if I’m honest. Because I thought: I can’t just sit here. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to make sure, as best I can, that someone’s going to give these people food.”