NHS Reset: It’s time to give carers the visibility they need | Helen Walker

Helen Walker

NHS Reset is a new NHS Confederation campaign to contribute to the public debate on what the health and care system should look like in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this blog, part of a series of comment pieces from NHS Confederation members and partners, Helen Walker outlines why resetting the NHS must involve recalibrating the relationship it has with unpaid carers.

Following the coronavirus pandemic, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset our health and social care systems – timely given our changing demographic, ageing population and the fact that many are working later in life. We fundamentally believe that resetting the NHS must involve recalibrating the relationship it has with unpaid carers, while recognising that social care should be on an equal footing to healthcare if we are truly to use this opportunity to change our society for the better.   

There are a wide range of places within the healthcare system that carers can be recognised and therefore supported alongside the person they care for. What we have to remember is that supporting a carer essentially reduces the pressure on our healthcare system. Because, put simply, once a carer becomes ill or reaches their mental or physical capacity to care, the system has to look after two people – them and the person they care for. 

Many people are caring round the clock, behind closed doors, and they need to know that the NHS recognises them, values them and will give them the right support when they need it. We should start with a systematic identification of carers in GP practices, supportive practice within hospitals and hospital discharge that includes carers in the process and supports them well.  

Our Carers UK research showed that 4.5 million additional people in the UK have become unpaid carers as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This is on top of the 9.1 million unpaid carers who were already caring before the outbreak, bringing the total to 13.6 million – that’s a quarter of the population! As such, carers need to be taken seriously. Put simply, it could be any one of us ¬– at any moment in time – that becomes a carer. We need to have support instantly available in those early moments of taking on the role to enable us to self-recognise that we have become a carer and all that it entails. 

Of those who have started caring since the outbreak, a significant proportion, 2.8 million people, are also juggling paid work alongside their caring responsibilities. This is now a situation that is common among staff across sectors, with an estimated 7.7 million UK workers caring. How will the changes that occurred during the pandemic in terms of home working and flexible working affect this group long term? 

The numbers certainly underline the need for much better workplace support for a huge swathe of workers. For most people, juggling a job with caring for a loved one is incredibly demanding, and without support from employers, it can be too much to manage. Every day, 600 people give up paid work to care, at a huge cost to the economy and personal finances. We can’t afford for this number to increase.

We know that juggling work and care is especially common in the NHS where we estimate one in five of the workforce also has an unpaid caring role for someone who is older, disabled or seriously ill. We were delighted that NHS England and NHS Improvement announced in Carers Week its membership of our employer-led forum, Employers for Carers. This gives all 1.5 million NHS employees access to our Employers for Carers portal and our Digital Resource for Carers. They now have dedicated support and information on caring all in one place, as and when they need it, through the duration of this pandemic and beyond. 

By recognising the challenges for their own staff with caring responsibilities and putting carer-friendly policies in place, the NHS will have a better understanding of the needs – and the value – of supporting millions of unpaid carers. And let’s face facts, every carer will at some point walk through the doors of an NHS service with the person they care for, so it’s the most obvious place to raise awareness and empathy for their role.

A number of local authorities already have these resources, but we’d like others to follow suit and also to maximise their value – signing up to something doesn’t always mean everyone understands it is a resource available to them.

Recognition of the needs of unpaid carers within health and care services could help transform the support given to carers, enabling them to take better care of their own health and wellbeing as well as that of the person they care for. This would, in turn, relieve pressure on health services as carers receive support they need earlier on and do not end up turning to the NHS in a crisis.

Government funding for much-needed services is imperative too. Rebuilding our care system and putting it on an equal footing with the NHS will help ensure that millions of carers around the country are better supported to care, and families have the services they need to live better lives.

Helen Walker is chief executive of Carers UK. Follow the organisation on Twitter @CarersUK 

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