Last week – National Carers Week – passed with even less than its usual muted tootle.
Not sure why. The pandemic has meant that unpaid carers are busier, lonelier, more stressed, less supported than ever. Maybe everyone was clapped out for the ‘real’ carers – you know, the ones we pay.
Carers Week is generally when those lucky enough not to be carers briefly acknowledge their plight, and then forget it again. This year we didn’t even bother to remember. The official hashtag #carersweek is matched by the unofficial #realcarersweek. Have a look: it is very illuminating. I’ve spent twenty years watching paint dry when it comes to raising awareness of the very existence of unpaid carers and their lives. It’s dispiriting.
Putting national apathy aside (and it was total) all I can imagine is that everybody in Britain – including our Prime Minister – is unaware of the void of difference between care workers (staunch, hardworking, poorly paid – but, crucially, paid) and unpaid carers, whose invisible lives are defined by high levels of ill-health (both physical and mental), poverty, stress and isolation. Carers are seven times more likely to be really lonely compared with the general public. Carers are in effect slaves, held hostage by love, saving the state billions. Many work 24/7 without a break for months, maybe years at a time. Unpaid carers have no pay, no sick leave (let alone sick pay), no holiday (let alone holiday pay), no employers pension contributions
Suffolk doesn’t even know how many unpaid carers it has – old couples locked behind doors, children worried sick that a parent may be collapsed when they get home, a sibling trying to keep a family member safe.
We do know that we have about 100,000 of them, because unpaid carers make up 13% of the population.
This year, lockdown gave everyone a sudden taste of being shut up involuntarily, unable to get out, unable to contact friends, losing livelihoods, careers, opportunities, very stressed, very concerned, very worried. And, like becoming a carer, it happened in a flash.
I am calling on the people of Suffolk – and those who represent them – to think what it would be like being locked down for life – for love. Without all the food parcels, the zoom quizzes, the sudden support networks and all the initiatives that are on offer now that sudden loss of of so much has hit the zeitgeist.
Clap for the carers? “Oh, of course we mean you you too.” Clap for no pay, no sick leave, no holiday, no work-related pension, no union representation – because you only work. You are not counted as workers.
Are the carers charities finally going to lobby to make real improvements to unpaid carers lives? Lobby for pay, sick leave, holiday entitlement, work-related pension contributions (because, sure as hell, carers work their socks off)? £67 Carers Allowance for the few, and a dismissive pat on the head for all is simply not enough!
This is the time to admit to and take responsibility for those hidden 100,000, many of whom – appallingly – we still can’t identify, still living lives of quiet desperation behind closed doors, whether the lockdown eases or not.
And having -finally – taken responsibility for them, we must be morally obliged to do something to make their lives better.