We’ve all been clapping for carers — but now it’s time for Boris Johnson to act
Carers remain low-paid — with women and migrant workers making a large part of the workforce. (PA)
As Carers Week draws to a close, we mustn’t forget the hard work and commitment of carers across the UK, both professional and unpaid, during the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic.
The public showed their appreciation by coming out on Thursday evenings to ‘Clap for Carers’ — but clapping is not enough. Family carers need support and professional carers deserve decent pay and working conditions in recognition of the valuable job they do — not just in this crisis, but in caring for our loved ones all year round.
In the media coverage of the tragic Covid deaths in care homes, it has often been forgotten that these are people’s homes and that staff become like family. They will have felt bereaved at the loss of those they have looked after for many years.
Homecare staff can allow a frail person to remain in their own home and may provide the only bright point of human company in their day. Care work is a challenging job that many of us couldn’t even begin to cope with.
The Women’s Budget Group has highlighted that it is women, especially BAME and migrant women, who are currently putting their lives on the line to deliver vital care during the pandemic — yet the UK Government considers they are ‘low-skilled’ and unworthy of a living wage or stable contract. Care work has historically been seen as ‘women’s work’ and indeed 84% of Carers are women. But their role remains undervalued and underpaid.
A quarter of care workers are on zero-hour contracts and homecare staff are often not paid for the time taken to travel between clients. Due to low pay, care workers may not even qualify for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if they catch Covid0-10 or are asked to self-isolate as a contact — both of which are more likely in their frontline role. Even if they do qualify, the amount is nothing short of miserly.
Migrant workers are also over-represented in the care sector – 1 in 5 carers in the UK are born outside the UK with 1 in 7 from outside the EU. These are the very same people who will not qualify for a visa under the UK Government’s future immigration system. This government has no idea of the difference between wealth and worth so, because of low pay, these people are deemed ‘low-skilled’.
Despite working in the NHS and care sector, those from outside the EU still have to pay twice for healthcare — through their taxes and then through the exorbitant Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS).
The Prime Minister promised to scrap this charge for care workers but, so far, nothing has been done. In future, these charges will also affect EU staff.
Furthermore, many migrant workers currently have no recourse to public funds. This means that even though this group is essential in the fight against Covid, and has the highest risk of losing their lives, they cannot claim Housing Benefit or Universal Credit should they be made unemployed.
When challenged on this topic at a recent Parliamentary Committee, it was clear that Boris Johnson had never even heard of the principle of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ — and he is the Prime Minister!
"After the pandemic eases, we need to rethink the provision of social care"
Boris Johnson should take steps to show care workers in England just how vital and valued they are. We all know that without them, we would never have made it this far through the coronavirus crisis.
For a start, he could redress the £6 billion funding gap in England and follow the SNP Scottish Government’s example in ensuring that all care workers are paid the real Living Wage, not the government’s parody of it which simply doesn’t cover the cost of living.
Scotland spends more per head on health and social care and is the only UK nation to provide free personal care, allowing two-thirds of those receiving social care to remain in their own homes. This provision has also been extended to those under 65 years who need it.
This week has also been about recognising family carers who have had a difficult time during lockdown, with relatives unable to help out, the closure of day centres that provide them some company or respite, and possibly a reduction in homecare support. They play a key role in allowing loved ones to stay at home, yet are often forgotten.
Indeed, for many they have grown into the role of carers so gradually that they don’t even think of themselves in that light and don’t reach out for help. Many local voluntary groups are therefore trying to reach out to them to offer support, either practical help such as shopping or simply in social contact with a wee chat by phone or over the garden hedge.
In recognition of the additional pressure that unpaid carers are under at this time, the Scottish Government is paying a Coronavirus Carer’s Allowance Supplement later this month, in addition to the regular six monthly Carer’s Allowance Supplement. As a result, eligible carers in Scotland will get a payment of at least £460.20 from the 26th of June.
After the pandemic eases, we need to rethink the provision of social care, including whether to develop a National Care Service similar to the NHS, and the UK Government must finally publish its repeatedly delayed Green Paper on how care should be funded.
Most of all, it is critical that caring develops into an attractive career, with decent pay and personal development opportunities, so as to keep talented staff on a long term basis.
Most of us have been out on our doorsteps clapping for our carers, and politicians have claimed to value their work in this time of crisis - but actions speak louder than words and now is the time for action.
Dr Philippa Whitford is the MP for Centry Ayrshire and the SNP’s Shadow Health Secretary