I hosted a meeting on Zoom last week with frontline care workers who were so worried about the consequences of speaking out that they asked for their identities to be protected. They are scared that if they speak out publicly about the situation on the ground they will lose their jobs and be unable to support their families.
The government is quick to laud our carers as heroes, but instead of trotting out platitudes about throwing a “protective ring” around care homes they should listen to people like the home care worker who told me about the struggle she faces on a daily basis. She tries to care for 20 older people each day whilst making do with only one mask to protect her and everyone she comes into contact with throughout her working day. She is terrified of passing coronavirus to vulnerable, at-risk people as she goes from home to home because she has not been provided with adequate PPE.
I’m proud of the work that I did as a care worker before becoming a Member of Parliament. I know from my own experience how hard our carers work, and they have selflessly put their own lives at risk to keep our country going during this crisis. So it makes me angry to hear how badly they have been let down. It makes me angry that they fear speaking out about the situation on the frontline.
Our care sector has been tragically let down throughout this crisis, as anyone on the frontline will tell you. And the failure to protect our social care sector and care home residents has undoubtedly cost lives, as the death rates in our care homes demonstrate.
It has become clear that the government’s “protective ring” around care homes never existed. The idea of a “protective ring” is contradicted by the government’s own guidance, which stated that “negative tests are not required prior to transfer/admissions into the care home”.
Leaked Public Health England documents revealed that the government rejected plans to “require care home workers to isolate to reduce [the] risk of picking up Covid-19”, possibly with higher pay. We cannot afford for the government to make the same mistakes again when it comes to the test and trace system.
The care workers I spoke to want to do the right thing, and it is absolutely essential that they don’t put vulnerable older people who live in care homes or are shielding in their own homes at risk. But the government has not been clear about the support that will be in place for social care workers who need to isolate under test, trace and isolate. Nobody should have to choose between keeping people safe and putting food on the table for their family, so the government needs to assure care workers that they won’t be going unpaid if they have to isolate and take time off work to keep us all safe.
The government should listen to the young carer who spoke about how many home care workers are being paid poverty wages – below even the national minimum wage when they take into account the unpaid travel time between 20 home visits every day. It is simply wrong that half of all care workers are not even paid the real living wage.
If ministers took the time to listen to our care workers, they would realise that they are not low-skilled, they are actually low-paid and undervalued. There is real and justified anger amongst staff in the care sector that the workers who are risking their lives to care for others are being called “low-skilled” by the very same ministers who have been clapping for them on Thursday evenings.
What is clear from speaking to staff working on the frontline is that warm words and the applause we have seen on Thursday evenings will feel hollow for care workers if it is not matched by meaningful action. They want fair pay and to be valued for the incredible work they do. That is the very least they deserve.