Over the last few months there has been a central message emanating from all commentators – politicians, media and indeed the general public. Care workers, often previously unrecognised for the skilled role they carry out, have been clapped, cheered and generally feted for the amazing job they do. In turn, Boris Johnson has described the work within care as “brilliant” and the Secretary of State has stated it has been “amazing”. Yet, roll forward to this week and it seems that this message has been forgotten, and once more care workers go unrewarded in the latest Covid dividend for public sector workers.
Quite honestly it is difficult to imagine anyone who has played more of a public servant role than the lowest paid members of the health and care workforce, who have turned out day and night in care homes, home care, supported living, extra care housing services and mental health services during this Covid pandemic.
Some 24 hours a day, seven days a week our professional care staff have continued to care under the most challenging of circumstance. They – like their amazing colleagues in health – have done this with compassion, providing a lifeline to the most vulnerable across our communities.
It was therefore particularly galling to hear Rishi Sunak’s announcement around pay increases for public sector workers excluding those who are delivering care. Then to add salt to the wound, a clumsy interview with Minister of State Kit Malthouse on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, which essentially profiled the government commitment to raising minimum wage as the government’s mechanism for rewarding care workers. As a motivational speech for care workers, it did not go down well.
“This has to be a never again moment for social care, it cannot be possible for future announcements about reward to leave them aside.”
The government’s position has long been one that the salary of care workers is down to individual employers and is not something that they should get involved with. However, this does not serve either employers or the care workforce well. The funding of adult social care is complex, and the nuances of how care is commissioned, and whether or not people have to pay for their care is beyond the realms of the majority until they get involved in receiving or arranging care. Yet, the pandemic does mean that people want to see care workers valued and rewarded – and for that to happen at pace and in a meaningful way – then government has to get involved.
In other parts of the UK, this issue has been treated differently. For example, the Welsh government acted quickly, and on 1 May announced that each and every care worker should receive a £500 payment in recognition of their work on the Covid front line. Although, recent reporting would suggest there is still ongoing dispute about whether the payment of £500 is net or gross, meaning that the funding has yet to reach the pocket of the worker. This needs to quickly move from gesture to reality, as the financial hardship of low paid care staff has been well documented. During the Covid pandemic, the amazing Care Workers Charity, that I am a trustee of, has sprung into action to address the many forms of hardship that workers have experienced during Covid. This started off with recognising the need to support staff surviving in isolation on Statutory Sick Pay, and has moved forward to develop programmes around supporting mental health, transport costs and sadly the costs of funeral for family and loved ones. The charity has raised an incredible, and much needed £2 million during this period, showing just how important care workers are to the wider public.
Clearly things must change for care workers. The longer term drive for reform is likely to dominate future discussions on social care and recognising and funding social care staff properly must be front and centre of that agenda. The government and employers need to work together to ensure that there is a minimum wage for care – one which accurately reflects the skills, expertise, compassion and care which those working on the front line have shown day in and day out. This has to be a never again moment for social care, it cannot be possible for future announcements about reward to leave aside those who, for many, have represented the essence of community response to a community wide pandemic.
We need the government to act now to ensure that each and every care worker is recognised and rewarded for their extraordinary work.
Vic Rayner is Executive Director at the National Care Forum