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The effect of the Coronavirus on unpaid carers

View profile for Simon Pimlott
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During the Covid-19 pandemic much has been written about the challenges faced by those working in hospitals and care homes as they tackle unprecedented demands on their stretched resources. However, there has been less written about the often-extreme pressures faced by unpaid carers, often family members or close friends, who have been required to provide critical care in the absence of state funded care and support service.

Charities providing support to unpaid carers are trying to shine a light on the enormous pressures faced by those who have been overwhelmed by the need to care for family member or friends with complex medical needs during a time of heightened risks and threats to health caused by the coronavirus.

What is Carers Week?

Carers Week 2020 takes place between 8 and 14 June. Never before has the vital role played by those providing unpaid care and support to their families and friends faced so many challenges. One of the aims of the campaign is to bring into sharper focus the need for the UK Government to reform and further invest in inadequate care and social services.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a serious threat to the health of those who are most vulnerable. The role of unpaid carers in our society has often been under-recognised but now it is estimated that there are an additional 4.5 million people providing care to the elderly, disabled and sick since the outbreak of the coronavirus. This is on top of an existing 9.1 million people estimated to be providing unpaid care in the UK.

What are the new challenges faced by unpaid carers?

The increasing numbers of carers across the country has brought new challenges and risks. Carers are trying to manage their daily lives along with the additional threats of the Covid-19 pandemic on the physical and emotional wellbeing of their family and friends, as well as the risks to jobs, financial security and relationships.

The nature of the care required can vary considerably from more simple tasks, such as shopping, collecting medicine and providing emotional support, to the types of tasks commonly performed by paid carers, such as personal care, supporting mobility and preparing meals. The pressure placed on carers can be considerable, particularly as many are in employment and will be expected to return to their workplaces as the restrictions imposed to tackle the coronavirus are eased in the coming weeks.

The need for support provided by unpaid carers is unlikely to diminish significantly even as the levels of infection from coronavirus reduce. An aging population, many with complex medical needs, together with limited resources within the NHS, care and social services means that long term pressures on unpaid carers will probably remain.  

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the government has issued specific guidance to carers to help provide protection to them and for those to whom they provide care. The primary purpose is, of course, to minimise the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Carers are having to deal with the pressure of having close contact with those most vulnerable to the coronavirus and running the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. With current guidance requiring those with symptoms to self-isolate, it has the effect of depriving care to those most in need. Rightly, unpaid carers are now considered to be key workers and this entitles to them to be prioritised for testing in the event that they display symptoms of coronavirus.

What advice has the government provided?

With the risk of carers contracting the coronavirus, the government has advised carers to form an emergency plan with the person they care for, to include who will step in if the main carer is required to self-isolate. The plan should also include details of care needs, medication requirements, current treatment and details of medical appointments.    

Government advice is that replacement care should be provided by alternative friends and family who are likely to understand the needs and will be able to respond quickly. It is also likely to be beneficial to the wellbeing of the person requiring care to have a familiar face. However, in the event that suitable replacement care is not available from friends or family, the advice is to contact the local authority or health care provider for support.

The government has recognised the importance of maintaining the health of the carer. The risk to access to care being reduced as a result of carers becoming unwell is heightened during the coronavirus outbreak, particularly with an already stretched care and social services sector. Government advice is to address both physical and mental welfare by finding time for your own wellbeing by taking exercise, seeking support from other friends and family, sharing the challenges that you face and if necessary, seeking support from a local carers support organisation.

What other protective measures can carers take?

Government guidance is evolving all the time as the threats posed by the coronavirus change.  A constant in the government advice so far has been the cleaning of hands frequently throughout the day. Where the person requiring care is considered vulnerable to the threat of severe illness if they caught the coronavirus, government advice states that only essential care should be provided and contact should be avoided if either person is unwell.

It is important to the maintain the hygiene and infection control advice that can be found on the NHS website along with the general advice to adhere to social distancing guidance, by keeping two metres apart, and avoiding non-essential contact.

There has been much discussion over the use of facemasks. It is recognised that facemasks are important in clinical settings, such as hospitals and care homes, and the government has recently made face coverings compulsory on public transport from 15 June 2020 but they are not recommended currently for general use to prevent the spread of infection except in enclosed public spaces.  

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