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Does this government care about carers?

Dawn, a carer, tends to her client Tina during a home visit in Scunthorpe - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The future of the NHS cannot be separated from the future of social care. And on this there is a scandalous lack of vision from ministers, says Lib Dem leader ED DAVEY.

The Covid pandemic has reminded us all of something Liberal Democrats have long understood: that caring for people’s health doesn’t stop at the hospital exit, or the GP’s surgery door.

We have all rightly praised our wonderful NHS, clapped for the heroes who staff it, and stayed home to protect it. But the truth is, we can only really protect and improve the NHS if we fix our social care system and properly support carers too.

Yet the pandemic has also shown how, for far too many politicians, care and carers are all too often an afterthought.

Just look at ministers’ abject failure to protect people in care homes: from the lack of tests and PPE to the lies about a ‘protective ring’ around care homes, while people died in horrifying numbers. The way hospital patients were moved into care homes to free up space, without being tested for Covid.

And look at the way millions of unpaid carers have been forgotten and ignored by people in power yet again. When the government raised Universal Credit by £20 a week but refused to do the same for Carer’s Allowance. Or when unpaid carers were left off the priority list for vaccination.

Campaigning alongside carers and carers’ organisations, Lib Dems managed to get carers included in priority group six. But even now ministers forget about them in vaccine communications, causing unnecessary confusion and uncertainty.

By so badly neglecting care, this Conservative government is failing our carers, letting down people who are elderly, disabled or seriously ill, and undermining our NHS. We must do better.

The Liberal Democrats are standing up for carers, and we will lead the way to a more caring society as we emerge from this pandemic. That must include a long-term, sustainable future for social care.  

When we were in government, we built a cross-party agreement through the Dilnot Commission and the Care Act, based on the same values that underpin our NHS. But after the 2015 general election, the Conservatives ripped up that agreement.

So now, more than a million people miss out on the care they need, and thousands more face exorbitant costs. People are stranded in hospital, unable to leave because the follow-up care they need to go home simply isn’t there.

All this puts extra strain on the NHS, which is already struggling for cash. And it demands ever more of family and friends, who have to step in to fill the gap and look after their loved ones, unpaid.

We are a nation of carers. Carers UK estimates there are 11.5 million unpaid carers across the country, and I’m one of them.

I’ve been a carer for much of my life. First as a teenager, nursing my mum during her long battle against bone cancer. Later for my Nanna, organising her care and trying to make her last few years as comfortable as we could. And now, as a father, as Emily and I care for our disabled son John.

So I understand the big challenges carers face every single day; challenges that have been made even harder by Covid. Most are having to spend more time looking after loved ones during this pandemic. Most haven’t been able to take a single break since it started. Most are simply exhausted.

And now they are worried. Worried about their own mental health, worried about what will happen if they themselves fall ill – because there’s no one to take over – and worried about whether they can cope until lockdown ends.

By underfunding social care and failing to support carers, the government is storing up huge health problems for the future. If ministers really care about the NHS, they need to care about care. 

The cross-party talks for a new solution for social care – long promised by Boris Johnson – cannot wait any longer.

The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto included a commitment to “urgently seek a cross-party consensus in order to bring forward the necessary proposal and legislation for long-term reform”. Yet like so many of his other promises, Johnson seems to have forgotten all about it.

The government’s white paper on health and social care, published on Thursday, should have been an opportunity to finally start putting things right.

It should have been a chance for ministers to set out their proposals for social care reform, which are now more than three years overdue, and to start building the new cross-party agreement we desperately need. And it should have been a chance to recognise the vital role unpaid carers play in supporting the NHS, to identify them better, and to support their health and wellbeing in return.

Instead, nothing. The white paper offered no substance on social care reform. Shockingly, it only used the word “carers” once, and didn’t address unpaid carers at all. Yet another missed opportunity that our country simply cannot afford.

Care and carers mustn’t be forgotten or ignored any longer. Liberal Democrats will keep speaking up for our wonderful carers, urging the government to support them properly, and pressing for a cross-party agreement on the future of social care.

We are a nation of carers. We need a government that cares too.

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