The first time I was told I would be working on Christmas Day was the first time I questioned my decision to join the mental health profession. At the age of 25, I would be spending the holiday alone, 300 miles from my family.
I needn’t have worried. The more experienced care home staff made sure that we were kept busy cooking, decorating and buying gifts for the young people whose families were either unable or unwilling to visit. The day itself was spent eating chocolate, watching festive television and being taught how to play Lego Star Wars on the PS2. By the time I got to bed around midnight, it no longer felt like a day spent at work and cemented in my mind that I was in the right job.
Years later, after I had left the care home to work for an agency, Christmas meant something else. Knowing that many care homes would be short-staffed, those of us who offered to work were paid double or even triple time. For many of my co-workers, the Christmas Day shift would cover the cost of their December outgoings and ensure they started the coming year debt-free.
The announcement this week by minister of social care Helen Whatley, that care workers will now be prohibited from working in more than one home, will potentially demolish the incomes of agency workers in a sector which has already borne the brunt of the pandemic. It is clear that her plan, a pilot scheme of which is to be launched “shortly”, has made no allowances for the 10 per cent of care staff supplied by agencies.
Rarely employed on long contracts, agency workers can see themselves in a different home or care environment every other day. Few receive paid holidays and many will take on long hours to ensure they cover themselves if work becomes scarce.
According to Ms Whatley’s new mandate, those who are employed to cover shifts in one home, will now be unable to take work in a different home once their services are no longer required. It is clear that prevention is at the heart of her plan, which aims to stop the virus from being spread to multiple homes. However the lack of guidance regarding an end to the scheme, or when agency staff will be able to return to working as normal, is extremely concerning to those who make their living on temporary contracts.
Her accompanying statement that relatives of residents will now be “treated as key workers” is welcome, but fails to take into account the number of actual key workers she is about to render jobless.
These hard-working men and women have spent much of the past year struggling through 24-hour shifts in unimaginable circumstances. They watched in despair as Boris Johnson stood outside No 10, clapping like a well-trained sea lion, despite the fact that a lack of adequate healthcare policy had allowed blanket “Do Not Resuscitate” orders to be signed for the residents they know and love. While the rest of us were tweeting pictures of our sourdough, care workers were preparing lunch for 10 and repeatedly explaining to severely disabled residents why they were still unable to go outside.
As the rest of us worry that further restrictions will prevent us from seeing family this Christmas, agency workers will be wondering when this government’s seemingly endless gratitude will transmogrify into something they can use to pay the rent.
For those of us who have been or are currently employed in the care sector, this is nothing new. Care work is (so we are told) unskilled labour. It is an “easy job” making tea for old folks, or looking after those lovely disabled people about whom the prime minister and co have heard so much but know so little. It is not a role we are taught to aspire to, with most seeing it as something that people do in lieu of a “better job”.
The treatment of our minimum-wage care workers over the last 12 months is a solid indicator of the government’s opinion of the working class in general. As demonstrated by the government’s insistence on low-paid workers returning to unsafe working environments, while white-collar employees may remain at home, their jobs mean less, their contributions count for less and, even when they are caring for the most vulnerable members of society, they are somehow expendable.
Desperate to improve their reputation, the government has positioned Ms Whatley as the MP who has our best interests at heart. Other MPs have flouted lockdown and failed to know how Excel works, but Ms Whatley is going to make up for all that by allowing people to visit relatives in care homes.
For those who have not seen their family members in care this year, it will be a relief to know they can spend time together. Likewise it will alleviate the worries of residents who may not have fully understood why family have been unable to see them. For their sake I am glad that there are plans to make visiting a viable option.
The relief will, however, be extremely short-lived if a lack of staff sees homes unable to operate safely. There is a tendency to blame the staff when things go wrong, but ignore the expectations placed upon them. For our many care workers, this has meant 10 months spent working at superhuman levels of resilience for a less than super wage. If Ms Whatley’s scheme goes ahead, it will come down to those same care home staff, now unsupported by agency workers, to ensure it all goes off without a hitch.
Our social care services are only as effective as the people running them. If they are overworked, understaffed or unemployed, no amount of applause in the world will fix the problem.