The sombre evidence that has stacked up over the last ten weeks reveals that the social care sector is the frontline of Scotland’s Covid-19 crisis. The latest figures show there have been 1,749 Covid-19-related deaths in care homes – around 46% of all coronavirus fatalities in Scotland.
The fact is that care workers and our older people in residential care have been badly let down during this pandemic. I have been accused of applying the benefit of hindsight, but I was raising what was happening in our residential care homes with the First Minister in early March, before the lockdown. Because we knew that these are our most vulnerable citizens to this kind of virus due to their age, health frailties and communal living arrangements.
This week at First Minister’s Questions, I highlighted the fateful impact of the government’s rush to discharge nearly a thousand hospital patients to care homes in March without testing them for the virus. I quoted testimony from a nurse in Lanarkshire who said that patients were transferred to her nursing home without their knowledge or that of their next of kin. “It was all one big mess,” she said.
This has not only exposed care workers to the virus, it has also caused additional stress and anguish at the hardest of times. Throughout this national emergency, Scotland’s care workers have been professional and dedicated in truly exceptional and unprecedented circumstances. Despite the widespread public appreciation for their efforts, too many have been forced to call in their union for support over health and safety issues, most strikingly a lack of PPE.
That’s why I’m calling for a step change in how our care system operates. Scotland’s care workers deserve better pay, improved conditions and recognised trade union representation. But they also deserve a re-evaluation of their status.
Only two weeks ago, the SNP joined forces with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament to vote down an amendment to emergency Covid-19 legislation to give collective bargaining rights for care workers. The SNP only voted in favour of a Scottish Labour amendment to establish a care workers’ fund to stop vital key workers being plunged into poverty by the pandemic after a huge public backlash against the party’s initial opposition.
Many care workers feel as if their services – often privatised or transferred to the third sector – are treated, both by government and in the public discourse, as the poor relation of our public services. Nicola Sturgeon has repeatedly stressed that she values care workers as much as NHS staff. But in that case, why has she voted to deny them the collective bargaining rights that NHS workers rightly enjoy?
It’s time for the Scottish government to sit down with local authorities, private care companies, third sector organisations and trade unions to ensure that Scotland’s care workers are properly paid and properly cared for. We must show those who have cared for us and for our loved ones that we will be here to support them long after the applause has ended.