Union pushes county council to pay care workers enough when self isolating

Essex County Council (ECC) must ensure that care workers “don’t face massive hardship if they feel unwell”, the social care lead at UNISON Eastern has warned.

Caroline Hennessy, UNISON Eastern social care lead, agrees with the Essex Labour group – who wrote an open letter dated February 4 – that care staff will often face hard financial penalties if they contract COVID-19.

Ms Hennessy said: “COVID-19 has spread misery in care homes across Essex and care staff are feeling the pain. The council must do everything it can to stop the virus from doing further damage.

“That means using government cash properly – making sure workers don’t face massive hardship if they feel unwell.

“Early intervention is critical. Care workers in Essex are risking their health and lives to look after our most vulnerable residents.

“The council must do its bit for them.”

In an open letter addressed to John Spence, cabinet member for adult social care at ECC, the Essex Labour group, wrote: “Despite being poorly paid, it has come to light that care workers in care homes across Essex are not being paid full pay for self-isolating when ordered to, or when contracting the virus.

“Instead, despite working on the frontline, they are expected to survive on sick pay, which barely covers bills, let alone rent.

“We are writing to you to make sure that ECC’s infection control fund is used properly to make sure care staff can help stop the spread of COVID, and receive fair pay while they follow the guidance and self-isolate.

“With all that they have sacrificed it is the least we can do.”

Gavin Edwards, a UNISON senior national officer, added that care workers dropping to statutory sick pay when they need to self-isolate “is one of the worst scandals of the UK response to the pandemic”.

Mr Edwards said: “Not only is this wrong and unfair to workers, it is proven to drive infection rates in the care sector. Care workers shouldn’t be under huge financial pressure when they need to self-isolate.”

Cllr Spence described the last year as “extremely challenging” for care home providers and their employees, who are working tirelessly to keep many of the county’s most vulnerable safe.

“This is a difficult, challenging and ever changing situation for care providers and it is therefore disappointing to see comments condemning those supporting our most vulnerable, rather than supporting them,” said Cllr Spence.

“It is a sad fact that the new variant has proved particularly infectious.

“Levels of infections in the community reached heights not previously seen during the COVID-19 crisis and it was bound to be the case that members of staff and others entering care homes would bring the infection with them.

“Once in the homes it was almost impossible for providers and staff to isolate residents.

“One death due to COVID-19 is one too many, however, it is important to recognise that Essex is the second largest authority in the country and has an older population than average, which needs to be taken into consideration when comparing figures.

“We have provided a range of support to the care market throughout the pandemic, including funding to help support infection control in care homes, and a range of additional financial support to meet the costs related to COVID-19.

“It is up to each individual provider to decide how the money we allocate to them is used, within the guidance and conditions we have set. These conditions are clear that the funding can be used for supporting people who are self-isolating to be paid at full pay.

“There are also a range of other uses for the funding. We do not have the powers to mandate on a case-by-case basis how providers use this.

“In addition to this significant financial support, ECC has been providing extra funding to city, districts and boroughs in the county to help people who need to self-isolate to stay at home with a £500 grant per person.

“The £3 million funding is to ensure that those that must stay at home are given the financial means to do so.

“We will continue to work with providers, UNISON and partners to ensure all residents in our care homes are safe, healthy and happy.”

Essex has recorded some of the highest death rates from COVID-19 in its care homes in the whole country.

With 70.5 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the week leading up to January 29, the only comparable authority with a death rate worse than Essex is Norfolk, which has a death rate of 71 per cent, according to figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

A total of 103 care home residents died from coronavirus in care homes within the boundaries of Essex County Council in those seven days. The total number of deaths was 146.

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter