Care workers were afraid they would bring coronavirus home, probe hears

Care home staff were “very scared” to go to work during the Covid-19 pandemic in case they brought the virus back home with them, an inquiry has heard.

Paul Arkison (pictured), GMB Scotland senior organiser, told the Scottish Covid-19 inquiry that carers sometimes didn’t go home after shifts in order to protect vulnerable family members from the virus.

He said it was “difficult to recall a care home that wasn’t affected by Covid”, which he said was exacerbated by the transfer of untested patients from hospitals to care homes early on in the pandemic, and the widespread use of agency care staff who worked in multiple care homes.

Increasing numbers of agency staff were needed, the inquiry heard, due to the number of care staff falling ill or having to shield or self-isolate during the pandemic, on top of an existing recruitment crisis in the sector.

Stuart Gale KC, co-lead counsel to the inquiry, read out part of Mr Arkison’s written statement to the inquiry: “(I) remember speaking to members who would be phoning us to say that they were very scared going to work, knowing that they would be returning home and potentially taking the virus back home with them.

“This was a very profound moment for us, and it’s one of the things that I will always remember.”

Mr Arkison replied: “The reality was carers have their own families and their own issues as well. And I do remember some carers, when they got time off or days off, they actually wouldn’t go home. They would actually stay on-site to minimise the risk for their family.”

He added that the physical and emotional strain on carers during the pandemic had been “enormous”.

This was echoed in evidence given by Rozanne Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), who described a “burnout pandemic” among experienced care staff, who had left the profession following following what had been a “traumatic experience” during the outbreak.

She told the inquiry funding cuts and changes to migration rules had left the care sector under-staffed and under-resourced going into the pandemic, resulting in a “perfect storm” when it hit.

As a result, she said, the care sector went into the pandemic without a plan for dealing with it and with insufficient PPE, something that she said amounted to a failure by government to protect frontline staff.

She told the inquiry: “Too many workers across our health and social care sectors were placed at really high levels of risk and it needs to be understood and investigated by this inquiry that a lot of those risks could have been avoided if proper planning, PPE and guidance had been in place.”

She pointed to research showing that that health and social care workers were four times more likely to contract the virus than the average worker, and that they were on average more likely to die of the illness than workers in other sectors.

“These workers placed themselves in some cases in lethal danger in service to their communities.

“We feel that action needs to be taken now to make sure that those that are facing long Covid and those that have passed away as a result of their exposure to Covid are receiving meaningful state support.”

She added that the sector remained undervalued, saying: “You can go and get a job in supermarket and earn more money than you can doing the highly skilled work involved in being a social care worker.”

STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham told the inquiry that many care staff went to work despite falling ill with Covid-19 because they simply could not afford not to.

“Some of it might have been down to the the undoubted dedication of health and social care workers, in this case probably misplaced, but largely speaking it was economic.

“People simply couldn’t afford not to go into their work.

“We heard that frequently. It was sometimes really, really quite distressing to have to tell people that our absolute advice was that they shouldn’t go into work when we knew that was causing them enormous concerns in terms of their income,” he said.

The inquiry also heard evidence from John Cairney, chair of the Prison Officers’ Association Scotland (POAS), who explained that it had not been possible for prison staff to follow national guidance due to the nature of their work, and the physical layout of older prisons.

He said: “There were times when our membership were having to go in and perform control and restraint to take prisoners under control.

“So we’re being told: ‘Stay away two metres, wear a mask, walk one way in a supermarket’, to: ‘You don’t need a mask and you’re going to have to restrain a prisoner who’s having discipline issues.’

“So it was just so unreal what we were actually being asked to carry out.”

He said prison officers had been “frustrated” by seeing national guidance around social distancing and wearing masks, when “that protection didn’t exist” when they came to work.

The inquiry is ongoing.

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