Care workers: The forgotten frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic

The care home industry has reacted and adapted to many difficult challenges this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic which took hold of the country in March. In the first lockdown news reports flooded in detailing the lack of PPE, testing and government failures. One of these failures had a massive impact on the care home industry.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the decision was made to move elderly people from hospital to care homes, even when they had not been tested or in some cases had even tested positive, in order to free up hospital beds. This caused the virus to ravage its way through care homes and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest that nearly 30% of deaths involving Covid up to mid-June were in care homes. During the peak of the crisis from March to May, 268 care workers died of Covid-19 in England and Wales and killed more than 18,000 residents. 

The awful misjudgement of government devastated the care homes and left care workers working harder than ever to provide adequate safety and care for their patients. During this time, we clapped for frontline workers every week to show our gratitude, respect and admiration to those risking their lives every day to help those who were suffering. Despite this, the industry that was being hit the hardest, care homes, continued to struggle with not enough adequate PPE, testing and dealing with patients not being able to see their loved ones for months and months. Government did not pay the attention to care homes that the industry so deserved and desperately needed. In a recent report, Age UK argues that the 1.65 million people working in care have seen “only relatively limited support put in place”.

Care workers continued to work underpaid, underrepresented and underfunded and this still continues right now. Age UK have highlighted how the salary for an average care worker is £15,000. This is shocking for a job that requires the employee to provide high quality care to elderly and disabled people, strength during challenging times and long hours. Without care workers, our elderly relatives would not receive the care that they need. 

Despite their remarkable work and dedication throughout the pandemic, care workers still struggle on poverty wages. For example, there are more than 800,000 care workers who are paid less than the £9.30 per hour “real living wage”. Age UK is calling for pay equalisation with the NHS for the same job.

The Charity Director at Age UK, Caroline Abrahams, stated that “The lack of Government funding for care often translates into exploitative working conditions for care staff, which in turn undermine the quality of care on offer to older and disabled people. Social care is above all a people business and if you don’t value the men and women who provide it you are undervaluing those who receive it too.”

As the rules began to relax with the Tier restrictions, care homes adapted to allow families to see their loved ones by including ‘visitor pods’ with floor-to-ceiling glass panels separating visitors from residents and ‘drive through’ visits where visitors do not leave their vehicles. However with the second lockdown and Christmas fast approaching, care bosses are now demanding £500m in extra government funding in order to improve visiting facilities, deliver testing for visitors and to guarantee enough PPE. This money would improve the safety of care homes which should have been at the forefront of the government’s agenda when the pandemic was at its worst.

Recently there have been calls to reform the care home industry. For example, in September, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner called for a plan guaranteeing that all care workers be paid at least the real living wage of £9.30 an hour. In the last month, the cross-party Commons health and social care committee called for an annual increase of £3.9bn in social care funding by 2023-24.

With resulting pressure on the government to act on the care home crisis, Health Secretary Matt Hancock pledged to make visiting possible in every care home by Christmas and has started an access to regular testing for friends and family in 20 care homes, which he plans to expand to other regions by Christmas. However, to many families that have had to deal with the lack of testing in care homes from the very start of the pandemic and not being able to see their loved ones, it is all too little too late. Government has been slow to react to the care home crisis and it has shone a spotlight on an industry that has been forgotten, disregarded and underfunded.

Care home workers have worked tirelessly to ensure the safety, care and protection of the elderly and disabled despite the challenges faced by government’s misjudgements and failure to take proper action. Care workers continue to provide their remarkable work on little pay, struggling to attain adequate equipment and without receiving proper testing.

The care home industry became a forgotten service before the pandemic. Little attention was given to those who work tirelessly to care for the elderly and disabled despite this industry being so important. We must honour the work of care workers throughout the years, the risk they have taken throughout the pandemic in order to care for the nation’s elderly and disabled and pay tribute to those care workers who have sadly died because of their service. 

It is time for the salary of care workers to increase, the government’s attention on the industry to improve and the care home industry to be reformed. 

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