Recent Covid data has underlined the alarming state of social care in the UK. Yet the biggest union of social care workers, Unison, has responded by allying with the very people overseeing this dire situation.
Not that far off a quarter of the UK’s virus-connected deaths so far, over 26,000, have been in care homes. That includes over 7,000 this year.
Meanwhile between March and December there were 79 deaths per 100,000 social care workers, as opposed to 31.4 among workers in general (among women, 35.9 vs 16.8). Among frontline care home and home care workers, the figures were 109.9 for men and 47.1 for women.
At the start of the pandemic probably a majority of care workers got only Statutory Sick Pay or none at all; and widespread evidence suggests that the money allocated by the government for infection-control measures which are supposed to fund full isolation pay has not filtered down anywhere near adequately.
Yet the government has revealed that only two thirds of social care workers have taken up the chance to be vaccinated. Among NHS workers, the figure is 80%. To contrast, over 90% of over-70s and 97% of over 75s have had the vaccine. The National Care Forum of “not-for-profit” social care employers says that take-up is even worse, only a minority, among certain groups of care workers, including those in support living and home care services.
Data from parts of the health and care systems suggests that take-up of the vaccine is significantly lower among some BAME workers than among their white colleagues. University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust says that 70.9% of its white staff have come forward, compared with 58.5% of South Asian and 36.8% of black staff.
That is part of a wider problem of unequal take-up of vaccination, which require a range of policies to address.
However, while both NHS and social care workers are disproportionately BAME, the social care workforce is marginally less diverse, 79% white as opposed to 78%. It seems likely that social care workers’ greater reluctance to get vaccinated is related to the significantly worse conditions and morale of the care workforce.
It may be that this is another case of those who most need vaccination feeling most reluctant or unable to get it.
The labour movement must rally round care workers' struggles such as that of the Sage nursing home workers in Barnet (North London) for a living wage, parity with directly employed NHS staff and recognition of their union United Voices of the World.
More broadly these problems, like the wider crises convulsing social care, cannot be effectively addressed without rolling back the waves of privatisation, fragmentation, underfunding and precarious working conditions that have engulfed the sector over decades.
As Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome put it last year, when she was sacked from her care job for speaking out about PPE shortages, the crises in care “require… deep change in how our health and social care systems are run… a huge injection of public money, and a model based on democratic public ownership”.
Labour conference 2019 called for a publicly-owned care system, but Starmer’s leadership has ignored the policy.
Now Unison’s new general secretary Christine McAnea has written on LabourList (4 February) calling for a “national care service” – but making it very clear that she does not mean public ownership.
McAnea’s article plugs a “Future Social Care Coalition” which Unison has set up with “employers, providers, social care charities and politicians from across political divides”. The website of the “campaign” (futuresocialcarecoalition.org) confirms that it is dominated by social care employers and a spate of Tory and right-wing Labour politicians.
In other words, Unison is helping privatised care providers agitate for more subsidies from the government, while also helping protect them against any push for public ownership. Naturally the Future Social Care Coalition will not advocate serious changes for care workers either, beyond some vague comments about better pay and “parity of esteem” with NHS workers.
There needs to be a serious campaign for public ownership, NHS-level pay and conditions for care workers, and a thorough transformation of social care. And to start on that we must denounce what McAnea and the Unison leadership are doing.
Unison organisations and activists in particular should make a fuss, demanding their union withdraws from the Future Social Care Coalition and instead launches campaigning for public ownership, with clear demands for care workers.
• Sage workers' campaign page on the United Voices of the World website
• Reclaim Social Care campaign for public ownership: reclaimsocialcare.uk
• Our briefing on social care and public ownership is here
• Safe and Equal campaign for decent sick and isolation pay: safeandequal.org