• Economy

Yesterday, I opened the store cupboard in the carehome where I work to see what remained.

‘Only four toilet rolls left,’ I report to the other two women on duty. ‘Four toilet rolls for six disabled adults.’ They looked at me blankly. With only a line manager occasionally on site we are used to being left to deal with things ourselves, yet this current spell of non-existent management has reached a new height.  Remarkably, despite the Corona crisis, we have not heard from the upper echelons of our company for weeks.

So far as anybody knows, head office has not checked to see if we can get supplies, and it is safe to assume that this level of communication is repeated across sixty-plus care homes spread across the region.   It appears not to have occurred to them, despite constant news footage of fights in Asda’s aisles, that their own homes are caught up in the same crisis.

Toilet rolls will soon be the least of our worries. The blank look I mentioned was that of carers stretched beyond caring.  Support workers who know it has fallen upon themselves as individuals to deal with the unfolding crisis without support or instruction, who know that when the virus finally arrives, as it inevitably will, the system will collapse because the support structures that should be surrounding them are simply not there.

Our six residents need round the clock assistance from the three staff to hoist, bathe, clothe, feed, medicate and shop for them. Sadly, even at the best of times they live precariously between illnesses. Unable to cough properly, the slightest sniffle can land them in hospital. We try to be careful of course, but the close proximity and unsanitary nature of the job means illness spreads fast, infecting both staff and residents alike.

Despite this, the company has never provided us with uniforms, and since the pandemic hit, the radio silence presumably means we won’t be getting any face masks or hand sanitiser – we usually buy the latter but there is none in the shops – or any of the things that nurses get in hospitals, even though we perform many of the same duties.

I phoned the oncall number. A grainy tired voice answered.

‘Excuse me, we have no toilet paper. We keep checking the local shops, but there isn’t any in.’

She sighed.

’You and everywhere else.’

‘Aren’t head office going to do anything?’

A mirthful laugh.

‘Are they heck. They probably expect you to go steal some from the pubs.’

Another support worker phoned up.

‘Can we get face masks?’

‘Only if you buy your own,’ was the answer.

We ventured the question

‘What happens if we all get the virus?’

Silence …’Well I doubt you’ll all get it at the same time’

The support worker hung up the phone in disgust

‘As if we are all going to just hang around waiting to get it,’ she said angrily.

Britain’s care industry enjoys the highest turnover of staff of any sector. Low pay and chaotic conditions make it unpalatable for most people, and so the workforce is made up for the most part with local women and immigrants – both groups conveniently meek and pliable, and accepting of the ever increasing workload, distant management and poor employment conditions. Those of us in the system know just how precariously things run at regular times to know how severely affected the industry is going to be once corona seeps in through the cracks.

Years of cost cutting, wage slashing, staff reductions and a heavy reliance on ‘pick up a shift’ agency workers are about to come to end in a catastrophic failure.

When the virus hits, it will spread fast. Far from the vulnerable being isolated; they are subject to a transient agency workforce that moves between properties, picking up unfilled shifts, and therefore cross-pollinating whatever viruses are in one home then spreading them to all others. Given the sheer number of strangers who have turned up for this kind of gig-economy shift work is far to many for me to recollect, yet each one of these agency workers could have worked in three, four, even five other properties in any given week.

So the virus will come to us. Despite the seeming complacency of the management.

Will they expect us to just continue to work – plain clothed and unprotected? Do they honestly think their workers will still show up? Do they think the agency workers will still pick up the shifts in the corona struck properties when they are free to choose not to.

It appears to merely be presumed that staff will simply carry on working in these houses and simply submit themselves for inevitable infection. But I can make a fair bet that enough people will not do so as to throw the system into chaos. Some will stay of course. Many support workers care deeply about the people they look after.

They will quietly take care of these people no matter what, but most will not. Unfortunately, this natural tendency towards kindness is what is exploited the most. If one asks for a pay rise, or better conditions, one can expect to be hit the mantra “you should be caring people. Caring people don’t do it for the money”

So, what will be the recompense then? What will be the thanks meted out to these poor souls who chose not abandon their post, and succumb to the virus along with their charges.

A handful of ordinary people stand between a great number of vulnerable people and disaster, and soon those people will find themselves stretched beyond capacity as more and more shifts go unfilled until, up and down the country, the elderly will lie in beds, their ‘care in the community nurse’ absent from the morning shift and in the homes, the workers on shift will dwindle, and the management, the bosses, whoever they may be (I’ve never known who I work for) will shrink ever further from trying to help them deal with the crisis.

We are not so far away from this scenario, and the steps towards it are well paved.

I am grateful my own home has three staff on any given shift. In some houses there is only one. Eventually, amid the chaos, the lone workers, who already often find themselves stranded for days at a time due to short staffing, will find themselves alone in a disease hit house. Unable to get help from her company, she may eventually succumb to panic, and leave.

And what if the shift coordinator is so overwhelmed, she fails to realise a house has gone entirely without staff for one shift, two, three? Might whole days pass? Come summer, will we see a news story never thought possible in these islands – one where men in white boiler suits are seen cordoning off properties, then going in to remove the bodies?

Author: Heather Ollerenshaw

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