“Many people know that care homes struggled to access the PPE required to keep staff and service users safe. What people do not know is that many agency workers who knew they had potentially come into contact with COVID-19 still accepted shifts from other homes because they had no access to sick pay.”A Care worker.
We get the perspective of someone who has been working in care through the course of the pandemic.
As someone who has been working in the care sector through the pandemic, there have been a number of changes in policy, attitudes, and outlooks that I have been able to observe in retrospect. For context, I work in a small home caring for people with severe learning disabilities and multisensory impairments – none of the people I support are capable of language of any kind (sign, pictures, or verbal), and have extremely complex needs, communication and otherwise.
In the weeks running up to the lockdown announcement there was a great deal of disregard for COVID-19 in my workplace, even after the increased media coverage became hourly. This became a problem when the lockdown began and it became apparent that this disregard from both management and some staff members conflicted with our roles to keep everybody safe. For the first two weeks we had no company procedure provided except to follow vague Government guidance (our specific situation stated: “risk to health and wellbeing must be assessed and appropriate action taken”). As a result, when we received a call saying one of our service users may have come into contact with the virus, we had to use our own judgement to minimize risks: cleaning, separating everyone, and doing the best we could to calm the people we support. Two days later however, management dismissed every in-home restriction we had implemented and insisted we return to normal, despite no change in situation or availability of any test (this was essentially due to management not believing the seriousness of the situation). Thankfully it turned out to be a false alarm, but it was a good indicator as to how the situation would have gone otherwise.
Alongside unclear instruction from Government and Management for caring for a group of people we now know are more susceptible to the effects of COVID-19, we also had to contend with the permanent staffing shortages within the care sector, except now, agency staff, who would normally make up around 30-40% of our shifts, became a risk.
Why? A significant number of agency workers are on zero-hour contracts. Unlike many other work sectors, agency workers in care have been able to get full-time working hours easily due to the chronic under-staffing in our current care sector (in the eight care homes I have worked in, only one was fully staffed). Agency workers have since been placed into a difficult position, and been made to choose between working whatever shifts were still available, or attempting to live off the weekly sum of £94 offered by the Government.
Unsurprisingly, many chose to continue feeding their families. Many people know that care homes struggled to access the PPE required to keep staff and service users safe. What people do not know is that many agency workers who knew they had potentially come into contact with COVID-19 still accepted shifts from other homes because they had no access to sick pay. Bearing in mind that testing was unavailable until more recently even for care staff, it was incredibly frustrating to watch discussions on the media portraying rising cases within care as some great mystery – a significant reason that I never saw mentioned is zero hour agency staff still working 40+ hours a week because they had no alternative way of providing for their families.
In the wake of the “clap for the NHS” and huge support from both the public and Government for people working in care we began to hope that real changes could happen for our sector. Perhaps wages might increase – not by much, but enough at least in acknowledgement that we bear daily responsibility for people’s lives through this pandemic (as we do at all times). Likewise, we were enthused by the prospect of greater funding to the sector as a whole; it’s where most of us will end up after all, perhaps raising wages would mean more staff, more reliability, lower turnover rates. All these things would allow us to improve our quality of care.
Truthfully, on a personal level it would also be nice not to choose between working an extra two to four shifts a week or feeling guilty because I know that if I did say no, a co-worker would be doing a five man job by themself yet again (often on top of a fourteen-plus hour shift).
The praise care workers received publicly went a long way to reducing stigmas that prevented people from even considering care as a career. But, alas, within a few months the blame was shifted on to our backs: “too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures in the way that they could have”, spoken on live TV by the Prime Minister himself. To reiterate, this was the detailed and specific procedure that we were provided: “Risk to health and wellbeing must be assessed and appropriate action taken”.
It’s been a long year for everybody, but for many care workers and people in care the lockdown is still fully in place. They’re still having to shield, having to spend their time indoors, and are still maintaining a set of precautions most of us got to shrug off months ago.