Two weeks ago we warned Coronavirus was in danger of spreading like wildfire throughout the care sector. We shared fears its hard working but underpaid staff were going into work unprotected and unprepared. Lives would be lost as a result. Tragically, this prediction has now come true.
The pandemic has laid bare how crippled the care sector has become from lack of long-term government funding, patchy regulation, and with low-paid staff often denigrated as ‘unskilled’ despite doing one of the most skilled jobs of all.
It’s a fragmented sector, part public part private, with contract staff often moving between different settings. The overarching regulator, the Care Quality Commission, has been lambasted by Camberwell and Peckham MP Harriet Harman as unfit for purpose.
Meanwhile, staff shortages and reliance on agency workers to fill gaps continue and are only worsened by the pandemic. Although the majority of paid carers are incredible at what they do, their professionalism is now being scuppered by having to face a difficult choice: chance catching COVID-19 working without the right protective gear, or refuse and face an uncertain future.
When the government introduced the lockdown what counted as ‘essential’ work was unclear. Public transport still runs for key workers and, of course, no one can doubt that carers are essential.
But the fact that families, even self-isolating ones, are not allowed into a care home but workers using public transport can and may even lack the equipment they need, only shows the failings in the UK’s approach. There is a human cost to the lockdown: the routine health checks missed, the mental strain, and the loneliness it brings. To be unable to visit a very ill loved one in their final weeks is horrific.
Imagine the agony of making this sacrifice to keep your family member safe, but then finding out the government was unable to pay that debt and did not make sure the frontline professionals had everything they needed to do the same. This is something no family should ever endure. But it’s happening across the country.
What’s more, hospitals have been emptying out their non-urgent patients to care homes where possible, preparing beds for coronavirus patients, meaning that both care workers and care home inhabitants fear the virus being brought into their buildings.
For now MPs, including Southwark’s own, are working hard to to push the government to fix these problems before more people lose their lives to COVID-19 in deaths that could have been prevented.
Better testing, the right PPE when it is needed with clear guidelines for use, workers’ rights ensured, and a clear picture on the number of deaths are the immediate priority.
There will be more devastation, more anger, and – in the fullness of time – someone must be held responsible.