My ageing mother’s carers have felt desperately undervalued for decades – the government has proved them right

Their pay is worse than their colleagues inside the NHS and even than supermarket staff. Meanwhile, the coronavirus shadow moves ever closer

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 15 April 2020 13:45 BST
A senior minister has denied care home residents are being 'airbrushed out' of official coronavirus death tolls

When Dominic Raab held his first Downing Street press conference on coronavirus, he paid tribute to the “amazing” doctors and nurses, the support staff, teachers, supermarket workers and diplomats working around the clock to get the country through the unprecedented challenge.

As I watched, I found myself begging him to namecheck workers in care homes. But he didn’t.

True, there have been tributes from ministers since, including Raab. But his omission betrayed an inconvenient truth: the government has relegated social care to second-class status. Or, more accurately, kept it where it already was.

I can see why. Politically, the goal was to avoid a repeat of those awful television pictures of Italian hospitals being overrun. Hospitals are part of a national service, just about under the government’s control. The 430,000 people in nursing and residential homes in England are not.

As someone who has spent a total of about 15 hours a week visiting two care homes for the past five years, I’m not at all surprised they are the forgotten frontline of the “war” against our invisible enemy.

Rightly, I now can’t visit my 95 year-old mum and 97 year-old mother-in-law in their care homes. I could unwittingly take the virus in with me, as could the care workers every day. The coronavirus shadow moves closer every day: my mum must say whether she would want to go to hospital or stay in her care home if she contracts it. The home does not have any oxygen, so hospital is the best bet.

Overworked carers, on marathon 12-hour shifts, go an extra mile to keep us in touch with our mothers via Skype and FaceTime. Every time, it’s an immense relief to see they are still OK.

It is hard for us, but much harder for them. My mum understands what is going on and is fine. After the Queen’s moving address to the nation, my mum recalled listening to her radio broadcast during the Second World War, when she was evacuated from London to Northampton. Now, 80 years later, she has suddenly been separated from her family again.

My mother-in-law has dementia and does not understand why my wife cannot spend her usual four or five hours a day with her. She knows who we are and can hear our voices, but tries to touch us through the screen. Unable to make physical contact with us, she grabs hold of the carer with her, something tangible in her real world rather than this strange new virtual one.

Carers, residents and relatives all know the official figures underestimate the number of coronavirus cases in care homes. Yesterday the Office for National Statistics put the number of deaths at 217 in England and Wales, but the figures are almost two weeks out of date. The Alzheimer’s Society puts the real figure at 2,500, others at 4,000. It is clear that some coronavirus deaths are not being recorded as such when GPs cannot be sure. We will probably never know the real figure.

Carers feel they have been sent into this battle without proper personal protective equipment or the vital tool of testing for the virus. Today Matt Hancock, the health and social care secretary, has unveiled another action plan, promising that every care home resident or carer who needs a test will get one. (At present, only the first five residents who are symptomatic are tested). There is no timescale, so care staff will be sceptical whether tests will be introduced quickly enough. Patients sent to care homes from hospitals will be tested first, but this comes only after some homes threatened to refuse to accept them, fearing they would spread the virus.

Carers have long felt undervalued. Their pay is worse than their colleagues inside the NHS, and for staff working in supermarkets. There are 122,000 vacancies in the sector. The government had a chance to put this right in this crisis, but missed it and is now running to catch up.

After a decade of underfunding and no long overdue reform plan in sight, the focus on hospitals has put care homes under even more pressure. Carers are being pushed into carrying out tasks normally done in hospitals for which they have not been trained, as residential homes become nursing homes. Yet in the post-Brexit immigration scheme, there will be no “carers’ visas” (unlike the NHS ones) because, ludicrously, they are deemed “low skilled”.

That is one of the many things that must change when we learn lessons from this crisis. Top of the list must be a fully integrated national health and care service. The danger is that steps down this road – integrated systems have been introduced on a voluntary basis in 14 out of 42 areas in England – will slow, an unintended consequence of the crisis.

If anyone doubted the need to bring the fragmented system together, it has now been proved beyond any doubt. Social care was left out when the NHS was created after the last war. It must not be left out in the cold after this one.

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