Something for Cobra to bite on: It's worth paying for the elderly

Social care doesn't sound as dramatic as Ebola, but there should be more urgency around how we will support our growing elderly population over the next decade
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The Independent Online

What keeps you awake at night, apart from your neighbour's summer party? The Ebola virus coming to this country? A Labour government putting up taxes? It may be the start of the summer holidays but, if you listen to the Government, there are plenty of reasons for us to have sleepless nights.

Last Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond convened Cobra, the Government's emergency and security committee, to discuss the UK's preparedness for an Ebola outbreak. In the same week, ministers also warned that Labour wanted to impose a "death tax" of 15 per cent on our estates to fund social care, after vague comments by Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary, emerged suggesting as such.

Clearly, the worldwide threat from Ebola is grave – although the likelihood of a case in this country remains small. The danger of Ed Miliband fleecing us of tens of thousands of pounds when we die is debatable – particularly because Labour denied this was party policy.

But in terms of a serious threat to our society in Britain, it is on this second issue that the Government should call an urgent meeting of Cobra. While the idea of a death tax is controversial and unpalatable, people need to wake up about the cost of funding elderly care over the next few decades. Social care doesn't sound as dramatic as Ebola – there would never be a Hollywood thriller called, say, Bedpans and Walking Sticks. Yet, with dementia set to rise, one in 10 of us already caring for someone, and a greater number expected to have to fulfil this role over the next decade, why isn't there more urgency around how the elderly – and their carers – are supported? Age UK estimates that enabling those currently giving up their jobs to become carers to carry on in work – and supporting them through designated care leave – is worth £5.6bn to the economy. It is crucial that the Treasury recognises this major contribution to our nation.

Our growing elderly population, with its attendant burdens on the NHS, social care services and families, should be at the forefront of everything the Government does. It should be at the heart of party manifestos for 2015. The policy of care leave – backed by Carers UK – which would allow employees a legal right to time off, in the same way as if they had had a baby, should be the first act of the next government. This is a modest proposal of up to 10 days off: in the US, employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks a year for any sort of family leave, which can be taken at once or as a series of shorter periods. Studies have found that it has only a minimal impact on business.

What the Government has done is offer the newly retired access to their entire pension pots. This is a great way to empower those in their sixties and seventies, by giving greater freedom to invest, yet it hardly encourages an understanding that we will need plenty of cash when we make it to our eighties.

And the Government has pledged a cap of £72,000 on the amount that anyone will pay towards care in their old age. Yet, in reality, this figure is likely to be much higher because it does not include the costs of residential care, meaning that we could each have to pay £150,000 before the state steps in.

So how are we going to pay for care for the elderly? Should people who have spent their lives saving for retirement and watching their modest home increase in value find it snatched away? A death tax is not only electorally difficult but morally questionable. Yet, as we are all likely to be affected by the need to care for a loved one or our own old age, or both, surely we should all contribute to this great problem through the tax system? The Labour government put a penny on national insurance to fund the NHS when it was needed. What is required now is an equivalent sacrifice, not at death but from all of us, young and old, to pay for our care crisis. Care for the elderly should be regarded as equally precious – and as worthy of investment – as NHS hospitals and state schools. With it, we will all be helped; without it, we will suffer. It is, surely, worth a meeting of Cobra.

Just the job for Johnson

The first meeting of Cobra took place in the 1970s to deal with striking miners. Its dramatic name is an acronym of its more prosaic-sounding location, Cabinet Office Briefing Room A.

Whitehall loves an acronym – last week the Department of Health put out a briefing note on Nervtag, which is as chilling as its name suggests – New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. But some shorthand labels have had to bite the dust. In 2005, Tony Blair gave Alan Johnson the new title of Productivity, Energy and Industry Secretary, not thinking that it could be abbreviated to Penis. A week later, Johnson's post was renamed Trade and Industry Secretary.

Bolt needs to unwind, too

Did Usain Bolt describe the Commonwealth Games as "a bit shit"? Probably. Although he denies it, there was only one person present with a shorthand note – the reporter from The Times. Yet should we forgive him? Yes. Bolt may have superhuman powers on the track, but those endless selfies – or Bolties, I suppose – demanded by members of the public must grind him down. He has money, fame and supernatural legs, yet his gift to the world – his speed – is slowed down by all those crowds. Being mobbed must be very isolating. It is the loneliness of the short-distance runner.

A conscience on your wrist

People charged with drink-related offences are being offered, instead of prison, special tags to keep them sober: have a drink and the equipment tips off the police. These tags are surely on a continuum of behavioural devices that, at the other end, includes those wristbands which count how many steps you've walked and how many calories you've burnt. I am addicted to my Nike FuelBand, which, if I do enough physical activity in a day, flashes "GOAL" at me and lets me compete with others online. If I sit still for too long, the FuelBand cheerily flashes "GO JANE", and if I miss my daily goal it doesn't alert the police, I just plunge into a pit of self-loathing. Perhaps a wristband could be invented to stop me spending so much time on Twitter or eating too much ice-cream.