During the coronavirus epidemic, council workers are among those who are the glue holding the nation together at a time when it is on the brink of all falling apart.
From refuse collectors to care and crematorium workers and many more, they are providing essential services that are in desperate need in time of crisis – especially for society’s most vulnerable.
But all their hard work could be imperiled as councils in England face a massive funding gap that threatens some of their most vital services such as social care.
Today (May 14) it has emerged that councils in England could be forced to make cuts of up to 21 per cent to balance their books, which they have a legal duty to do.
The funding gap for social care alone amounts to £3.5bn, with more than a quarter of a million social care places now at risk for this financial year. According to an analysis from the Labour party, the overall ‘coronavirus black hole’ stands at £10bn.
Despite the government announcing on Tuesday (May 12) that it would plough £600m more into social care, in addition to the £3.2bn it has granted to councils in the last two months, councils still face skyrocketing coronavirus costs at a time when their revenue streams such as parking charges have all but dried up.
The government said from the beginning of the crisis that it would do ‘whatever it takes’ with funding to support councils through the epidemic, but shadow communities and local government secretary Steve Reed warned that if the government doesn’t step in to plug in funding holes, it risks breaking its promises.
“Carers and our loved ones they care for are on the frontline of the fight against coronavirus,” he said. “Local authorities are the biggest funders of social care in England – so when the government promised to stand behind councils through this crisis Labour supported them.
“But now ministers are breaking that promise, leaving councils with a £10bn black hole forcing 21% cuts across the board,” he added. “Unless the government drops those plans the frontline heroes we’re cheering today will lose their jobs tomorrow and the equivalent of 225,000 frail and frightened older people and vulnerable adults will lose the support they rely on.”
Life on the line
Unite convenor Carol Starr is one such care worker who is putting her life on the line to support vulnerable people in our communities. She cares for adults with dementia and mental health issues in their homes – her duties will vary from giving patients medication to feeding, bathing and helping them move from their beds to offering other forms of support.
The average age of the people Carol supports, whom she calls ‘citizens’, is 80 and so they are particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. Like so many low-paid essential workers, Carol and her colleagues have struggled to secure adequate PPE.
“I’m very worried we could be bringing it home to our families or spreading it to our vulnerable citizens,” she said. “That is my biggest fear that I pass it on to one of my citizens – all them are over 80 years old and extremely vulnerable. I couldn’t live with myself if this happened.”
Already 131 care workers have died after contracting coronavirus – the highest out of any job role.
Commenting on the news that local councils may be forced to make cuts to social care if the government doesn’t step in and help, she called the plans ‘absolutely crazy’.
“Even before all this happened we were cut to the bone – we only had funding for the very minimum levels of care,” she said. “To cut social care now would be unthinkable, not least because we take the strain off the NHS, which now more than ever needs that strain to be eased.”
“We also need to think about the kind of society we want to live in – do we want to live in a decent society where those most vulnerable are cared for? So many of the citizens we look after have no family – we are the only people they have any form of human contact with. Do we want to leave them festering in their homes?”
‘Rock bottom’ morale
Carol said morale among care workers like her is at rock bottom. Not only do they fear for their lives and the lives of those they care for but they feel a sense that the praise being heaped on them as heroes in the crisis is little more than empty rhetoric.
“We haven’t had a pay rise in years; we’ve had 10 years of austerity — even before the crisis we have been constantly asked to do more and more for less and less. When all this is over we just feel that, unless we collectively decide to do things differently, everything will go back to what it was – and yet again care workers and other council workers will be invisible. It really chips away at you.
“If anything this virus has taught us that the most undervalued and underpaid among us are those who are holding this country together – but will we learn from these lessons after the crisis?”
Unite national officer Jim Kennedy agreed, and slammed central government for attacking care and other council workers after so far not agreeing to step in and plug funding gaps in councils’ budgets.
“It is inconceivable that public sector workers, the real heroes of this terrible crisis, should be targeted yet again,” he said. “This government has time and again attacked our essential local government workers through pay cuts and job losses, but even by their low standards to now seek to penalise the very people who have sustained our communities, cared for our young and elderly and have saved lives, is beyond contemptible.”
Carol and other council workers, members of Unite, are urging central government to properly fund local government as they have promised. And for them, that means including funding for a proper pay rise for workers who have seen years of pay cuts.
“They are very literally putting their lives on the line,” Kennedy added. “Meanwhile, their wages have fallen by an unacceptable 22 per cent over the last decade of austerity. If the government wants to remain true to its word when it said it would ‘do whatever it takes’ to support our local council services then it needs to take a stand and support those who run those services – they must be properly rewarded.”
Unite has now launched a local government pay campaign to pressure both central government and the Local Government Association (LGA) to increase local government employers’ ‘final offer’ of 2.75 per cent for council workers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This offer, Unite has said, is simply not good enough — the offer works out at between only £1.83 and £2.20 extra a day for workers carrying out vital working and risking their lives to do so.
You can find out more about Unite’s campaign here.
By Hajera Blagg