Helen Walker, CEO, Carers UK
The last two years have been an unprecedented time for people working in social care, but also unpaid carers, who have provided substantially more care with a much lower level of support, amid the upheaval of the COVID 19 pandemic. An additional four million people took on unpaid caring responsibilities, for the first time, taking the total number of carers to an estimated 13.6 million at the height of the pandemic.
For many, the additional hours of care impacted on many aspects of their lives: their relationships, their mental and physical health, their paid work and finances, and their emotional wellbeing. Carers Week 2022 provides an opportunity to recognise and value carers, but also to highlight the additional support they need.
Moving forward it is essential that unpaid carers’ rights are protected and enhanced; they must be recognised as equal partners in care, supported in the workplace, and given adequate financial support to cope with the astonishing rise in the cost of living.
Our research has revealed the extent of the challenges that carers have faced during the pandemic. Overnight, day services, community support, and informal support networks, were shut off or transferred online.
Our 2021 Carers Week report revealed that 72% of carers had cared without a break since the start of the pandemic, with carers telling us that they have been unable to even leave the house.
Working carers were already struggling before the pandemic, trying hard to balance providing practical and emotional support, managing appointments, and keeping an eye on the person they care for – all alongside paid work. We are currently at a turning point for employers, employees and the Government. It is vital that the positive lessons from the last two years are learnt and flexibility in the hours and the places people work is maintained, to ensure that working carers can stay in paid work. Investment in social care that is affordable and accessible is just as vital so that people can work, safe in the knowledge that their relative is well cared for. The right to up to one week’s unpaid Carer’s Leave, a Government manifesto commitment, would also have made a difference to the recognition of carers within the workplace as well as helping them juggle work and care. It is essential that legislation is passed to ensure that carers have a right to carers leave and supported, through law, in the workplace.
Caring already comes with additional costs, but we are particularly concerned about the impact of the cost of living crisis on unpaid carers. In February, just under half (45%) of unpaid carers told us that they are currently unable to manage their monthly expenses. Many also said they were taking difficult steps to manage them; 58% have cut back on heating, while 14% have already fallen into arrears with their energy bills. Carer’s Allowance remains the lowest benefit of its kind, and it must be increased.
Lessons and Recommendations
The pandemic has shown the value and necessity of recognising carers and the essential role they provide in supporting the health and social care systems. Carers were able to receive priority access to the vaccine and this has encouraged identification of a group of people who often remain hidden. This identification needs to be ingrained throughout health and care services not only recognising unpaid carers where they are experts in care but also potentially receiving support themselves. We found that local areas which identified unpaid carers well and had joined up systems, using technology effectively, found they could identify carers quickly and effectively. In other words, good practice during the pandemic suddenly became essential practice.
Anyone working in social care has a really important role to play in supporting unpaid carers, from practical support, to helping them recognise they are a carer as well as signposting them to support. Employers in social care might have as many as one in three of their staff with unpaid caring responsibilities and recognising this could also help those employees to remain in work.
That’s why this year during Carers Week, we are highlighting why carers must be visible, valued and supported, in all aspects of their caring role.
We are asking organisations and individuals to make a pledge to support unpaid carers – joining politicians, employers, local authorities, businesses and individuals in supporting carers here