Veteran actress Miriam Margolyes has criticised the “cruel” and “heartless” end of the free TV licence for over-75s, and accused Boris Johnson of a “dereliction of duty” on the issue.
Her comments come just 75 days before the universal entitlement is due to be scrapped and replaced with a means-tested benefit.
Margolyes, 78, told the PA news agency that many pensioners will be faced with the possibility of having their “friend” – the TV – taken from them.
She hit out at the Prime Minister for not responding to a petition of 630,000 signatures, which was delivered to Number 10 Downing Street seven months ago.
The star, who is an Age UK ambassador, said: “Boris Johnson should have responded by now.
“It’s a dereliction of duty. He clearly has other things on his mind at the moment (coronavirus) and that I do understand, because the health of the country has got to come before anything.”
But she said there had been enough time to respond, and added: “The Prime Minister…. is just not coming to the table.”
She described the Government’s position as “vindictive, political hardplay,” adding: “It’s outrageous and must be fought.”
Pensioners are “going to have to choose between paying for their licence and having that bit of extra money to buy food, pay for heating and live their lives.
“It’s an intolerable and difficult choice,” she said in a video for the charity.
“The Government and BBC are at loggerheads at the moment and the piggy in the middle are the pensioners. The people over 75 are being punished.
In this unprecedented situation older people will be even more reliant on their TV, and their radio, than they are in the usual run of eventsAge UK
“It’s disgraceful and I think it is the Government’s responsibility to care for its old people.”
Margolyes spoke out as the Government threatened to end the licence fee altogether, and turn the BBC into a subscription service.
And her comments came after BBC chief Lord Hall admitted it is “conceivable” that 90-year-olds could end up in court for non-payment of the licence fee, but added they “absolutely don’t want” that.
The actress said there is “too much middle management” at the corporation, with “so many people sitting in front of computers”.
She told PA: “People do criticise it and they should because it’s not perfect. But it’s a damn sight better than most countries have. It’s widely admired and respected.
“With coronavirus, the radio has been fantastic at getting information to people.
“I think it’s essential that we protect the BBC. I’m shocked it has to be protected.”
For older people, “suddenly to be faced with an extra bill, to have the possibility of your friend taken away from you. I think it’s cruel, really heartless”.
The charity has said the coronavirus outbreak has made free TV licences for over-75s even more crucial, as elderly people will be asked to self-isolate for up to four months.
A statement said: “In this unprecedented situation older people will be even more reliant on their TV, and their radio, than they are in the usual run of events.
“During this national crisis they will want to see and hear what our political and NHS leaders are saying to the country about winning the war against coronavirus, which poses such a direct threat to them and their friends.
“They will want news, reassurance and reasons to be cheerful, and the TV will be key if they are to get this precious input from the outside world.”
Thank you to everyone who has offered to support older people in response to #COVID_19uk. You are all amazing.— Age UK (@age_uk) March 13, 2020
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Age UK charity director Caroline Abrahams called on the BBC and the Government to come to an agreement.
While there “has been a vigorous debate… about how to fund the BBC in the future… let’s remember that within a much shorter timescale the over-75 free TV licence is set to disappear, with serious consequences for many older people,” she said.
“We sincerely hope that the Government and the BBC listen and respond. Time may be short but it is not too late for these free TV licences to be saved if the political will is there to do so.”
The charity said the increase in the TV licence fee, to £157.50 from April 1, and the launch of a public consultation on whether TV licence fee evasion should be decriminalised, “has done nothing to make the position better for the over-75s”.
It says it has been “inundated” with calls and emails from worried older people across the country.
A previous Conservative government handed over responsibility for free TV licences to the BBC in 2015.