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Think the petrol situation is bad? Just wait for the care shortages…
Slow Views

Think the petrol situation is bad? Just wait for the care shortages…

Friday 1 October 2021

Brexit has driven thousands of care workers away, and they’re not coming back. Without urgent policy change, disabled and older people face months of uncertainty and struggle

I’ve been watching the HGV driver and fuel crisis with an eye on my carers’ rota. Reports of huge worker shortages across sectors make me nervous. For now, I have (just about) the 24/7 care I need, but for how long? 

If you think not being able to get petrol or your Amazon order is bad, imagine not being able to get out of bed, eat, or go to the loo. Imagine becoming housebound or socially isolated, or suddenly being unable to go to work. Imagine elderly people left in soiled clothes. This is what happens when there aren’t enough care workers. The coming care crisis will make petrol shortages look gentle in comparison.

The shortage is already biting. When I called my usual recruitment agency recently to ask about replacing a part-time personal assistant who is leaving for a full-time, non-care role, they asked if I had a friend who might be able to step in for now. No one is applying, they said. Gulp. I dread what happens when a full-time PA leaves: will I, in my late twenties and with a successful career, be forced out of my flat and back to my parents’? Thinking about it leaves me with a knot in my stomach.

Even before the pandemic, there were around 110,000 vacancies in the care sector, according to the industry organisation Skills for Care. Who knows how much worse the situation has become since? Care workers have had a torrid time – putting their lives on the line for pitifully little pay, while still not getting the recognition and respect afforded to nurses and doctors. How many are burned out and looking for a career change?

Many care workers, especially in London and the South East, are EU citizens (incidentally, every member of my care team is Polish). How many left to go home for the pandemic and now, thanks to Brexit, cannot return? And Brexit has also hampered employers’ ability to recruit new staff. While carers are on the shortage list, meaning they are partially exempt from visa income requirements, many do not know this. Others are put off applying for jobs in the UK by all the new paperwork, others simply by the fact of Brexit itself. When I did some reporting for Newsnight on Brexit’s effect on care back in 2019, employers from London to Scarborough told me that the number of EU applicants for vacancies had fallen off a cliff.

Moreover, even when EU carers do apply, employers have to sponsor each worker (something you can only do if already registered with and approved by the Home Office). This is perhaps fine for large care homes or agencies, but what of the hundreds of thousands of disabled and older people who hire their own assistants? Trust me when I tell you that the last thing we need is more admin.

The Brexiteer response to all of this is to say that shortages will drive up wages, and then British people will do the job. The level of misunderstanding in this statement is hard to adequately describe, but let’s try. Firstly, the mechanism patently doesn’t work: HGV driver wages have been rising steadily, but there’s still a critical shortage. That’s because driving an HGV, especially one filled with petrol, is very skilled and requires a lot of training. It’s a hard job with long hours and a lot of responsibility, requiring a high level of dedication and patience. The same is true of care. The notion that just about anyone could decide to be a carer for a bit is pie in the sky (and I have the horror stories to prove it).

More important, though, is the way that the care sector is not at all like the market for HGV drivers: there isn’t a supply and demand mechanism. Lots of care is funded by cash-strapped councils who can’t put up wages, and nor can many of those who pay for their own care. I’m sure many would like to pay their personal assistants more, but most are scraping by. At the other end of the market, demand doesn’t fall when prices rise: you can’t simply decide that you’ll take fewer hours because wages have increased. Whether it costs £9 an hour or £11, you still need to eat. 

What all this means is that even when there are severe shortages, wages don’t really increase. And if they do increase a little, under the current system it is disabled and older people who suffer. So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’d be better to just reinstate freedom of movement for EU carers – and maybe even extend it to those from further afield. We are, after all, desperate.

In the long term, we are going to have to fundamentally change how we think about and fund care. We are going to have to recognise the value of care – that it is not a bad thing that happens to you when you are old, but something that allows for meaningful lives at whatever age you happen to be. And then we are going to have to pay for it appropriately, just as we do for healthcare. Only then will people fill the vacancies not because they have to, but because they want to.

But that will take time and sweeping political change. In the meantime, the least we could do is make it easier for the dedicated people who come and take these difficult, highly skilled jobs – and, in doing so, allow people like me to live independent, fulfilled lives.

Lucy Webster is a writer, political journalist and disability advocate.

Photograph by Lindsey Parnaby / AFP

Read Ian Birrell’s investigation into big profits in the broken care industry for Tortoise here.