Carers – they’re the very bedrock of our society and during the coronavirus pandemic they are literally risking their lives to keep our loved ones safe and healthy.
Care work has always been dismally undervalued but now carers — like other underpaid and underappreciated roles such as supermarket workers and delivery drivers — have emerged as central heroes in this crisis. And they desperately need support – from the government, from their employers – to stay safe.
Jane* works for a not-for-profit organisation that provides 24-hour supported accommodation for vulnerable people, such as those with mental health issues and learning difficulties. She tells UniteLive that their workplace has never been so fraught with anxiety – both for colleagues and the people they care for as well.
“For our residents who live in communal settings, there’s a real fear of the virus spreading very quickly,” she explained. “Some of the homes are in old Victorian buildings which are hard to keep clean at the best of times.”
And of course caring for people who are less able to handle the anxiety of lockdown comes with its own challenges.
“We have concerns about the capacity of the people we care for to retain and act on new information, such as social distancing which has changed all our lives dramatically,” she said. “So it’s a real challenge finding a balance between maintaining that kind of vigilance but also supporting and reassuring and helping to manage that anxiety.”
The reality of lockdown is different for everyone, but for some it can reignite buried trauma, Jane explains.
“Some of the people we work with have been in prison or in secure wards before – that’s never a nice experience and lockdown is bringing up a lot of that emotional and psychological trauma back. They feel contained and claustrophobic.”
PPE ‘unsustainably expensive’
An immediate concern for Jane and her colleagues is the urgent need for PPE, and while they have received some from CQC through central government, she was shocked to find that much of the protective kit was four years out of date (pictured below).
The charity that Jane works for, as with all charities now during the epidemic, are under serious financial strain as their fundraising income has plummeted — which has made it that much more difficult to acquire desperately needed PPE for staff.
As the Telegraph reported earlier this month, charities and care sector organisations are facing enormous costs as the price of PPE has spiked.
“Gloves, they are up by 30% in price, aprons, they are up by 166%, but most strikingly we’ve seen a typical price increase for a standard pack of masks go up by over 1,000%,” Mark Adams, chief of one of the leading social care charities Community Integrated Care, told the Telegraph.
A spokesperson for the National Care Association, a body representing Britain’s care sector, also highlighted the difficulties faced by care organisations.
“They are making every effort to ensure their residents and staff are safe and the only way to do this is for them to have PPE,” the spokesperson said.
“When they are trying to source PPE they are either being told it has been diverted to NHS or they are having to pay much more for it, which they do. It is an unsustainable situation.”
Jane echoed these concerns.
“The price of PPE is going up so that’s going to impact on our organisation long-term,” she told UniteLIVE. “We’re concerned about the third sector as a whole and how charities are going to cope not only with additional staffing but paying extra for PPE. It’s become unsustainably expensive.”
Reaching out into the community
Every minute that the government has failed to supply care workers with PPE is another minute spent risking their lives, so Jane decided to take matters into her own hands – by reaching out into her local community.
“One of the unique things about working for a charity is that we are embedded in our communities,” she said. “We have good links in our communities which helps us to respond to urgent situations.”
Jane linked up with a local man, Mark Binks, who has in turn created a network in his community of producers and suppliers to make face shields. With the help of crowdfunding, the project, called #Shields4Manchester, has been enormously successful to date, producing 10,000 face shields each day.
“In the last three weeks, Mark been providing PPE to care homes, pharmacies, to doctors’ surgeries, to local hospitals and he’s also received NHS approval to ensure that the PPE we’re getting is of the highest quality,” she explained.
Now, thanks to community collaboration, Jane and her colleagues have a supply of shields (pictured below) to protect their faces from droplets from people infected with coronavirus, which is one way the virus spreads.
‘Put yourselves first‘
Although Jane says she is proud of her community and the work they’ve done collaboratively to acquire PPE, she expressed a profound anger at the government’s failure to protect frontline workers.
“There’s not a crumb of central planning. They’re taking too long to connect with local producers – producers who are literally sitting on PPE,” Jane said, highlighting a number of domestic producers across the UK who are being snubbed by the government.
“And also the government are just flat out lying,” she continued, pointing to the recent story of RAF planes bound for Turkey to collect PPE whose mission descended into chaos after, it turned out, the commercial supplier in Turkey did not have enough in stock. “They’re playing politics with frontline workers lives.”
For other workers in the care sector, Jane had a direct if difficult message for them – “No kit; no care”.
“It’s the hardest decision anyone has to make in the sector but our lives matter too,” she said. “Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day and for years trade unionists have been fighting for safe working conditions. We’ve worked in this sector with terrible terms and conditions and poor wages – our status is treated with utter disdain for years and years and years and this is the final straw. Because we have families and loved ones too. And mainly we’re women – so we’re going home to care as well.
“My advice is to work collectively and demand from your management the protection you deserve. Also work with management collaboratively and tell them, ‘Look this is where we can source PPE’. Go to your communities because that’s a source of strength for us all. It’s a shocking situation but I would say to anyone who works in care – above all put yourselves first.”
Jane urges people to contribute to the #Shields4Manchester initiative. You can find out more on the project’s crowdfunding page here.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
By Hajera Blagg