The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging period but for unpaid carers it has been extraordinarily hard.

Helen Walker, Chief Executive Carers UK, tells us how the charity is supporting unpaid carers and offers some take-home advice.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought people caring for loved ones nothing but worry, exhaustion and loneliness. Many are trying to cope without vital support they usually have in place and are not sure when the end is in sight.

Since the pandemic began in March, important face-to-face services that families rely on, such as day centres and support services, have been operating at a reduced capacity or have shut down. Carers had to make crucial decisions about the ongoing care of their loved ones, many choosing to take on more hours of care to keep their loved ones safe – without knowing how long for. Carers UK research shows the vast majority of carers, 81%, have taken on more hours of care since the outbreak started. Furthermore, three quarters (74%) told us they felt exhausted and worn out after six months of caring through the pandemic.

And every day of the pandemic, unpaid carers are saving the state £530 million in the unpaid care they provide. Yet many are at their wits end having gone months on end without a break from caring – some, years.

The reality of caring during a pandemic

One carer told us: ‘I feel distraught and shattered every day.’ Another: ‘I am a shadow of what I was before going into lockdown. I am lonely, fed up and depressed, yet I can’t show these traits and must carry on my caring duties, no matter what.’

Loneliness has been an even greater challenge for carers during this period. They are a group that is, in normal times, statistically more likely to feel lonely and isolated as a result of their caring responsibilities. Added to that the fact that receiving support with caring from more than one family member has been out of the question during lockdowns – that sense of loneliness has been significantly exacerbated.

We saw in the media a spotlight on care home visits during the summer and into the autumn. Successive lockdowns and changing restrictions has meant safely seeing a loved one in a care home has been a complicated experience, causing some carers and their families a lot of stress.

Whether caring for someone living with them in their own home, or at a distance; round the clock or for a couple of hours a week, unpaid carers have had a lot to contend with during this pandemic and these challenges have largely been hidden from view.

Campaigning for carers

Throughout the crisis Carers UK has been working hard to ensure carers are supported. Providing up-to-date information and advice through our website and helpline as the situation evolves, as well as peer to peer support through our Care for A Cuppa and Me Time sessions.  We champion carers and ensure the decision makers hear their voices.

Most recently we have led calls for carers to be prioritised for the COVID-19 vaccine. This has resulted in the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)’s decision to include unpaid carers in group six on their priority list. This should hopefully see millions of carers across England vaccinated, feeling confident and better able to keep their loved ones safe, and make life easier for them. The vaccination will help reduce worry and fear, as well as open up the possibility of some carers accessing help for the first time in a year.

Fairer for carers

Carers UK campaigns on other important issues for carers too. Our long-standing Fairer for Carers campaign calls on the Government to increase Carer’s Allowance. Currently this is just £67.25 a week for someone providing 35 hours or more of unpaid care. For so many, this is too little to get by on. We believe it should be raised to recognise the significant contribution made by unpaid carers and to help cover the costs associated with caring.

Every day in the UK, 600 people give up work to care for their loved ones – at a big cost to their finances in both the short term and the long term. At Carers UK we are both campaigning for a right to five days of paid carer’s leave, and proactively working with employers through our Employers for Carers Forum to help people better manage their work and caring. With our ageing society and people working for longer, workplace support and flexibility for carers is a vital step forward.

Carers UK is calling on the Government to acknowledge the enormous contribution made by carers during this pandemic and give back to carers by prioritising their health, wellbeing and resilience during this third lockdown and in the future. Carers deserve a new deal, through which they are better supported to care.

Advice for carers

  • If you spend 35 hours or more each week caring unpaid for someone who is older, disabled or seriously ill, you could be entitled to Carer’s Allowance. Find out more on the Carers UK website.
  • If you are a carer over 18 years old caring for someone who is also over 18 you can ask for a Carer’s Assessment. This is an opportunity to record the impact caring has on your life and what support or services you need. The assessment will look at for example, physical, mental and emotional needs. Also whether you are able or willing to carry on caring.
  • If you’re juggling work with caring, you have the right to request flexible working if you are an employee with 26 weeks (six months) continuous employment at the time you make the application. Watch our videos on making the most of flexible working.
  • Caring can be very emotionally and physically demanding, so it’s important to take a break. See more about finding time to have a break from caring.

Further support

  • Carers UK’s online forum is a place where carers can share what’s on their mind, day and night, with people who understand and can provide support.
  • Upfrontis our simple online tool for carers who are new to the maze of support and entitlements. It is especially useful if you are new to caring; just fill in your details, spend a couple of minutes answering questions and Carers UK will guide you to the information you need.
  • If you have a specific question – whether that be about finances or tax credits, employment rights or services available to carers – call the Carers UK helpline on 0808 808 7777 (Monday to Friday, 9am – 6pm) or email advice@carersuk.org

Interested in finding out more about Carers UK’s campaigns and joining them? Read about what they’re up to on the Carers UK website or join Carers UK for free.

Additional information on support for carers can be found here.