Vulnerable people in social care are left at a heightened risk of coronavirus because of the failures of local government bosses, private care providers and national government policy.
Across Britain, around 400,000 people live in residential care—and are looked after by overworked, underpaid workers.
And some workers are dying.
Dean McKee, a 28-year old carer who worked in west London, died two hours after collapsing from suspected coronavirus.
His sister Jo said, “He worked in a care home, got ill 8 days ago, he collapsed on my mum.
“Took to hospital and died two hours later,” she wrote. Lyn-Marie O’Hara is a co-covenor of Glasgow Unison union branch. She told Socialist Worker that, “within care home settings catering and cleaning staff are up close and personal with residents day in, day out.
“You can’t deliver personal care from two metres away,” she said.
Many workers are struggling to find the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe.
Jackie Huncliffe, care worker and Unison steward in Warrington, has launched a petition demanding more support for care workers, who are “at the forefront of the struggle against the virus”.
Signed by almost 4,000 people, it demands priority testing of care workers and pay protection for workers who are ill or in self isolation.
It also calls for more employment protection and full pay for workers who care for vulnerable family members and children.
“The government have made some commitments, but they do not adequately address concerns about resources and support getting to frontline staff and public services.
“Many of us on low wages cannot get access to statutory sick pay, and some private social care companies are ignoring the government’s advice to pay staff if they have to self isolate, which could put lives at risk,” said Jackie.
Lyn-Marie said that, workers “need to know that there’s endless PPE”.
“What we don’t want is a raft of dead people, with a legacy saying ‘we could have done more'.
“Care homes need to be clean, and people need to be fed. There’s an absolute commitment to going to work, but people need to know that they’re of equal value to doctors,” she said.
“The NHS is undervalued and underfunded. But when I applaud, I’m applauding everyone—the school cleaners, the Tesco delivery workers, the jannies."
The true picture of the reality of coronavirus in care homes is not yet known—because no national body is producing accurate information.
Hundreds of people have already died in care homes, yet they are not being counted towards national daily totals.
Industry body Care England thinks that the death toll in care homes is already likely to be around 1,000.
When I applaud, I’m applauding everyone—the school cleaners, the Tesco delivery workers, the jannie.
The only official statistics about deaths in care homes come from the Office of National Statistics data which relies on death certificates—so the information is delayed by several weeks.
Jason Oke, a senior statistician at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Heath Sciences warned that the current figures were, “obviously an underestimate of the severity of the pandemic”.
“The worry is that we discover in six months that the numbers are way larger because no one was counting what was happening in care homes,” he said.
For residents inside homes, life has changed dramatically. To stop the transmission of the virus, many are confined to their rooms for large parts of the day—and visits from family members have been stopped.
Lyn-Marie says the situation for vulnerable adults is scary. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for older adults, to see people gowned up and masked up, having no visitors.”
Care workers often work for private companies on low wages, and have poor terms and conditions.
A care worker in north west England was sacked while in A & E, with suspected coronavirus. Her dismissal also came on the same day her husband suffered a fatal heart attack.
Her bosses at private firm 365 Support said the worker had given permission for the hearing to go ahead. But her union, Unison, said its member wasn’t aware that the hearing could result in her dismissal.
The carer now faces weeks of uncertainty without any pay before her appeal is heard.
Glen Williams, Sefton Unison branch secretary said, “While the country claps for our carers, heartless company bosses have chosen to sack a care worker without even giving her a chance to defend herself.”
The pandemic has exposed some of the critical problems with privatised care—an industry that rakes in billions of pounds every year.
But some care homes are worried that coronavirus is going to eat into their margins.
Council bosses in England have committed to paying private care providers an extra 10 percent to soak up additional costs incurred during the pandemic.
Martin Green is the chief executive of Care England—an industry body representing larger care home chains.
“Our own findings make it clear that a 10 percent increase will not be sufficient. There is a real danger that this is too little, too late, and there simply isn’t time to go cap in hand in the weeks and months to come,” he said.
Instead of care companies scrabbling around for cash to keep their homes running, they should be brought back into public ownership and properly funded.
Scrapping for-profit homes would improve the lives of those working in them, and give the best care to some of the most vulnerable people in our society.