A cross-party group of five former health ministers have called on the UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to award embattled care workers an urgent wage increase to see them through the second wave of the pandemic and raise pay above the legal minimum.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester and a former health secretary, alongside Sir Norman Lamb, Phil Hope, Alistair Burt and Paul Burstow, all former care ministers, are backing calls from care providers, unions and doctors for the chancellor to provide £3.9bn to lift earnings. There are more than 800,000 care workers on the “forgotten frontline” who are paid less than the £8.72 per hour “national living wage”, the new Future Social Care Coalition said.
During the peak of the crisis from early March to late May, 268 care workers died of Covid-19 in England and Wales as the virus swept through nursing and care homes, killing more than 18,000 residents.
“We are concerned, as infections increase, that there will be even greater pressure on the care sector,” the group said. “To make matters worse, the substantial level of vacancies is causing real problems. Social care staff look after some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet half the 1.6 million workforce earn less than the real living wage and some do not have secure contracts.”
The UK spent £23bn on social care in 2017-18, according to the Health Foundation charity.
The call for Sunak to provide emergency funding in his 25 November spending review is being backed by the National Care Association and the National Care Forum, which represents thousands of independent and charitable care home providers, and Unison, the largest trade union for care workers. Caroline Abrahams, the director of Age UK, Alastair Henderson, the chief executive of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, and Carers UK, a support charity for carers, are also backing the call alongside Sir Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service.
It comes amid warnings of exhaustion and burnout among care staff. There are an estimated 120,000 vacancies in the sector. Infection rates have been rising in care homes in recent weeks, with 282 homes reporting new infections in the week ending 25 October.
However, virus penetration does not appear to be at the same level as during the spring. In the week to 19 October when 670 people died in England and Wales from Covid, 16% of fatalities were in care homes, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. The last time the death rate was at a similar level, in mid June, about one-third of deaths were in care homes. It suggests tougher restrictions on visiting, staff movement and infection control may be having an effect.
“Care workers have been the invisible heroes throughout the pandemic,” said Abrahams. “They’ve been on the frontline giving their all while looking after older and disabled people. Many have put their own health and financial worries to one side, and some have tragically even paid the ultimate price … The government must now do everything possible to help care workers at this very stressful time. That includes paying them a decent wage.”
Last month, the cross-party Commons health and social care committee, chaired by Jeremy Hunt, called for an annual increase of £3.9bn in social care funding by 2023-24. The committee said that without an immediate increase there was a “risk of market collapse caused by providers withdrawing from offering services to council-funded clients and focusing exclusively on the self-pay market”. The Health Foundation has estimated the sum would allow the average pay in social care to increase to just 5% above the national living wage.
“Care has long been the forgotten service,” said Christina McAnea an assistant general secretary at Unison. “The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the sector’s faults like nothing else. Its problems cannot be ignored for a moment longer.”
The Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury have been contacted for comment.