Opinion

Elevating social care has to be a top priority.

 

Christine McAnea, Assistant General Secretary, Unison

Untold lessons will be learned during the Covid-19 crisis. Among them will be the realisation that care staff are skilled, essential workers who deserve to be treated with fairness and respect.

Long before the pandemic crisis began, UNISON had been campaigning for the status of care workers to be raised. Now, it is an absolute necessity.

Outdated ways of thinking have held back the sector during the crisis, endangering the lives of many care workers, the elderly and the vulnerable alike.

The perceived lower status of social care pushed the sector to the back of the queue for vital personal protective equipment (PPE) when the virus first hit and urgent action has been needed to catch up. At the time of writing, the government is still struggling with this.

Too many care workers who should have been self-isolating have been pressured into coming to work by their employers, in contravention of public health guidance. Another major issue has been fragmentation caused by “market building” which has led to councils struggling to co-ordinate their carers to where they are needed most.

We’ve had hundreds of members contacting us with accounts of the harrowing situations they’ve experienced, including those who are faced with an impossible choice between risking their health or ending up without pay.

During the early part of the coronavirus lockdown in March, one worker got in touch to say this: “I am on immune suppressant medication and still working five days a week. What am I supposed to do? [I] can’t afford to stay home without wages, I have bills to pay.”

We have to ask ourselves why we ever put people in this situation.  It has been exactly this type of desperation which has led to staff attending work when they should have been at home.

When we look back on this crisis in the months and years to come, one of the key lessons we hope will have been learned is the need for a world-class social care system delivered by valued care workers.

Workers in the NHS have rightly been lauded for their bravery, hard work and selflessness. But carers deserve the same respect.

They have gone above and beyond the call of duty in exactly the same way. Yet many are paid less than the national minimum wage, some have to deliver care in 15-minute visits and others are routinely denied pay for their travel time.

For too long, social care has been dumped in the ‘too difficult’ pile. Successive governments have dodged the tough decisions needed and we have sleepwalked into a disastrously underfunded system.

Though we don’t claim to have all the answers, unions like UNISON have already shown there can be another way. Initiatives like the Ethical Care Charter demonstrate that guaranteeing minimum standards of pay, and terms and conditions, can radically improve levels of service.

In the longer term, we all have to take ownership of this problem. For our part, UNISON is significantly expanding activity in the social care sector, recruiting more and more members and negotiating recognition agreements with providers where we can.

But government, councils and providers also need to step up. We need to elevate social care to a top priority. Funding, partnership working and a proper career structure for carers can help create a new, integrated service.

A service in which care workers are seen for what they are – invaluable public servants who have been poorly treated for far too long.

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