Engage: ‘I’m embarrassed by my ignorance when I thought I’d understood’ – Ed Balls on social care
Ed Balls has held a myriad of job titles over the course of his career.
But while a decade serving as a Labour MP culminated in his appointment as shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was the economist’s subsequent stint on Strictly Come Dancing, followed by the documentary series Travels In Trumpland With Ed Balls, that saw him transform into something of a small-screen star.
Now though, in what can only be described as a thoroughly sobering affair, the former politician, 54, has added the title of carer to that already exhaustive list.
New two-part BBC Two documentary, Ed Balls: Crisis In Care, sees the former politician’s professional and personal lives seamlessly converge as he locks down in a North Yorkshire care home mid-pandemic.
Following Balls (pictured) as he experiences first-hand the trials and tribulations of a sector crippled by chronic underinvestment, the project has been described as “an eye-opener” by the man once charged with challenging the government on its financing.
“I think I went into this thinking that I knew what I was talking about,” admits Balls. “I wanted to see social care from the inside, but I wasn’t expecting to find out that I really didn’t understand the system anywhere near as much as I thought I did – particularly the personal nature of care and how hard it is.”
It’s a subject that hits close to home for him, as the documentary openly discusses his family’s heart-breaking decision to move their mother into a care home in 2018 following her dementia diagnosis some 12 years prior. A move following an extensive period of at-home care, the resolution was one that eventually came about out of necessity – an experience shared by many families up and down the country.
“This is not a programme where I go in with an agenda to deliver a lecture,” asserts Balls. “I think the power of these programmes is they allow the viewers to see it for themselves and make up their own minds… It’s not my story or my view; my job is to be there, open it up and allow us all to peer in.”
Reflecting on the moral dilemmas and “maybes” that haunt countless families facing similar predicaments, Balls describes the emotional choice and its aftermath as a “simultaneous feeling of guilt”.
“When they’re finally in care, they’re safer, happier and more secure, and their needs are so much better met without the sort of continual crises which happened at home. People feel guilty that ‘maybe we should have done this earlier’.”
Returning to his northern roots for the series, the documentary sees Balls join a carer named John as he undertakes 16 home visits in a single day. As well as learning about the demands faced by thousands of unpaid carers and the gruelling domiciliary work involved in the job, Balls also found himself confined to Scarborough’s Saint Cecilia’s care home for a two-week period during the pandemic.
Describing the sense of “guilt” that accompanied the realisation he had long underestimated the “complexities” of social care, Balls says he has since become aware of the pressures placed upon those working in the sector.
“I wish I had known what (social care) was all those times I talked about it,” he says solemnly of the blanket term. “I’m embarrassed by my ignorance when I thought I’d understood.”
Having not seen his own mother for 16 months as a result of care home visiting restrictions, the former cabinet minister followed in the footsteps of carers by living on-site in a bid to reduce the spread of infection.
Undergoing two Covid tests a day, wearing full PPE and explaining the crew went without a sound recordist in order to “minimise the number of people” involved, he recalls the fact “most staff weren’t medically trained” and “didn’t have any PPE to begin with”.
Despite extensive precautionary measures, Saint Cecilia’s – like many care homes across the UK – saw the deaths of numerous residents as a result of contracting the disease. The stark realities of funding, however, mean that countless care homes like Saint Cecilia’s continue to teeter on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of decreased resident numbers.
“If a particular hospital has a death in A&E, it doesn’t mean that that hospital’s A&E is going to be funded less the next day,” explains Balls. “Whereas in social care, if a resident dies, the funding stops. And in this decentralised small business system, if in a pandemic your occupancy goes from full to a third empty, that is actually a disaster.”
It’s no secret that the UK’s adult care sector was in crisis long before the pandemic took hold. That being said, Balls describes how the onset of Covid emphasised just how “undervalued” many carers continue to feel, having faced harsh criticism over care home infection rates despite receiving a lack of training, equipment and funding.
“I felt humbled how good they are, guilty that I had not properly valued them like I think all of us undervalue them, and slightly appalled that they felt that in such an acute way,” he confides.
“Staff members were living with each other because they were so worried about going home and passing it on to their kids or their partners – and then they feel as though they weren’t being clapped for, in fact, if anything, they were being judged. And that is really worrying.”
A system propped up by the exhaustive efforts of selfless individuals, Balls says the lack of pay, training and progression has become a serious faltering point within the sector.
Citing Cameron – a hopeful paramedic featured in the series – as an example, Balls says “the reality is, if he goes on to become an ambulance worker or do domiciliary nursing or become a paramedic, you’ll go into a national system where there are national training paths and starting pay…. You rise up the bands, you get the training. And the trouble with care is there’s none of that.”
However the programme is not about “second guessing” or “taking a view on the detail of the Government’s reforms”, he adds. In fact, Balls remains “really proud” of what his party did for the NHS whilst in power during the early 2000s.
“The health service was something that we were experiencing in a very direct way – we had three kids in the NHS, we experienced it and valued it and we didn’t do the same for social care,” he recognises.
“I feel guilty that we didn’t transform it. And I’m trying to understand why. And I think it was because unlike social work, the fire service, or the police, or teachers, or the NHS, I don’t think I properly understood the scale and the complexity and challenge of this social care system and how much onus we put on relatively low pay people to do impossibly difficult jobs.”
Ed Balls: Crisis in Care airs on BBC Two on Monday, November 8, and will also be available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
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