Care, poverty and Coronavirus across Britain

Ieuan Ferrer Health, Inequality

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp focus the importance of care both in Britain and globally. Yet, put simply, if you are a carer, paid or unpaid, for children or adults, you are more likely to be in poverty. This is not right.

Oxfam works to tackle poverty everywhere, including in Britain. To do that, it’s impossible to ignore the link to care, and how care is systematically undervalued.

As such, today we have published two reports on this link between care and poverty, incorporating new qualitative research with carers. Make Care Count examines the pre-pandemic link between care and poverty, while our supplementary briefing, called Care, Poverty and Coronavirus across Britain, demonstrates how Coronavirus is exacerbating that problem.

Our conclusion is simple: governments across Britain must act now to end poverty for carers, paid and unpaid.

As this pandemic unfolds, carers’ organisations and unions are rightly highlighting how carers are being impacted by the pandemic:

Unpaid care

Unpaid carers were already significantly more likely to be in poverty before the crisis:

Now, increased pressures, combined with an inadequate support system, are making things worse. Carers have told us that the crisis is causing significantly increased stress:

About three weeks ago I just broke. My doctor prescribed me medication because I was having panic attacks… This crisis has really brought home the fact that my partner and I are on our own; there’s no safety net.’ Unpaid carer, Scotland, woman

The pandemic is also significantly increasing living costs for many:

‘My usual weekly spend is about £20-£30 to feed us both very comfortably. Now I’m spending about £60 online.’ Unpaid carer, England, woman

Unpaid care has reduced incomes for many others. 29% of parents in one survey said they were forced to reduce their working hours or take unpaid leave due to increased childcare responsibilities.  And women are much more impacted by these changes. For example, women make up 72% of those receiving Carer’s Allowance – a low earning group who do more than 35 hours of care a week.

Paid care

Paid care is undervalued too – with this work associated with low incomes, poor conditions and a lack of agency.  Before the Coronavirus crisis, nursery nurses and assistants were paid £7.70 an hour in England, and half of social care workers in the UK – 500,000 people – were paid less than the real Living Wage (£9.30 an hour).

‘I think the minimum wage is not enough. Like, if you’re doing 40 hours a week on minimum wage, I can’t pay my bills. I have to do overtime.Make Care Count, male, social care worker

While the economic value placed on carers is low, our expectations of them are high – a contradiction cruelly reinforced by this crisis. Many social care workers are being expected to work in care settings without the necessary personal protective equipment, putting themselves and their families in danger. Many childcare workers have continued working, endangering themselves by foregoing social distancing to ensure other key workers can go to work. Others have been furloughed on 80% of their normal pay, or in some cases have lost their incomes entirely partly due to illness, living with somebody who is ill, or the precarious nature of the contracts they are on.

Again, women are overwhelmingly impacted by these factors. For example, they represent more than 90% of childcare workers and 83% of social care workers in England.

Building back better

The immediate priority must be saving lives, but the conversation is already moving towards thinking about what society will look like as we rebuild from this crisis. While clapping for carers on a Thursday night is a powerful way of showing our gratitude, to truly recognise their contribution we must properly value them. As a society we must accept that the carers who got us through this pandemic have not been valued by our economy.

As the first steps towards addressing this, we believe governments across Britain should act to ensure the social security system functions as a safety net for carers in poverty now and those who are at risk of being dragged under by pressures from Coronavirus. As well as social care employees are paid a Real Living Wage, with access to flexible and secure work. But as we go forward, politicians should ensure all key workers are given the protection and support they deserve.

Together, we must build back better so that carers are protected from poverty, now and forever.


Ieuan Ferrer