Many carers looking after disabled and elderly family members have found themselves virtually confined to their homes over the past nine months, through fears of exposing their loved ones to the virus and the loss of opportunities for respite breaks.
A recent survey by Carers UK found 64 per cent had been unable to take any breaks at all in the past six months, while 81 per cent have seen an increase in the hours of care they provide and 64 per cent said their mental health had worsened during the pandemic.
But unlike NHS staff and social care workers, they do not feature on the priority list produced by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation, meaning they will not get access to the first wave of Pfizer/BioNTech inoculations and may have to wait four months or more to get protection.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has written to health secretary Matt Hancock urging him not to leave unpaid carers “forgotten and ignored” as others receive jabs.
“They face huge challenges and make enormous sacrifices every day,” said Davey. “It is vital that they receive the vaccine as soon as possible, to keep them and the people they care for safe.”
Under the JCVI’s priority list, care home residents and staff are first in line for vaccination, followed by NHS staff and over-80s. Next come older people in successive five-year bands from over-75 down to over-50, along with clinically extremely vulnerable people and those with underlying health conditions which put them at risk.
The UK’s order of Pfizer doses will not be sufficient to cover the whole list, meaning those not on it – including unpaid carers – may have to wait until other vaccines are approved for use.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that care workers who visit people’s homes will get priority vaccinations. But unpaid carers are not included because they provide care within their own homes and are likely to have few contacts.
Former lecturer Indra Ratnam, 66, of Kingston, Surrey, said his 62-year-old wife Jokastwari should be on the list for a jab so she can go out without fearing bringing the virus into their home.
“It’s a very unfair arrangement,” he told The Independent. “She does identical work looking after me that carers in residential homes do.
“We haven’t allowed anyone to come into the house because we are scared of the virus, so she hasn’t been out and it has been very difficult for her. We haven’t seen a single friend for the last nine months. “Getting the jab would be a chance of a new life for her. It would make her life so much better if she could feel safe going out.”
Carers UK has calculated that people looking after loved ones at home have provided unpaid care worth £530m every day of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chief executive Helen Walker said: “Carers have made huge sacrifices over the last nine months to protect their loved ones from Covid-19, taking every possible step to mitigate risks and keep that person as safe as possible.
“They have sacrificed their own breaks from caring, their physical and mental health, reduced their working hours and significantly limited their contact with the outside world in an extraordinary effort to keep relatives safe while waiting for the vaccine.
“We completely agree that care homes need to be in the first group along with care workers who support them. Just like key workers, unpaid carers are playing a crucial role in keeping older, disabled and seriously ill people safe from this virus and the government must ensure they are made a priority for the Covid-19 vaccine.”
And Carers Trust chief executive Gareth Howells said: “We know that unpaid family carers work tirelessly to provide the vast majority of social care in the community.
“When you consider the key role unpaid carers play in keeping the social fabric together, and then what they have done in the last few months to protect some of the most vulnerable and at-risk members of society, unpaid carers should be prioritised to ensure they can keep caring for their families.
“We are asking that the government urgently reconsiders its position and puts unpaid carers on the priority list.”
Sir Ed said that unpaid carers were a “glaring omission” from the priority list
“Millions of unpaid carers are doing a remarkable and important job looking after loved ones during this pandemic,” he said.
“The JCVI rightly states that ‘Frontline health and social care workers are at increased personal risk of exposure to infection with Covid-19 and of transmitting that infection to susceptible and vulnerable patients in health and social care settings’. The same is clearly true for unpaid carers.”
And he told Mr Hancock in his letter: “All too often, unpaid carers feel forgotten and ignored by people in power. We urge you not to let that be the case when it comes to something as crucial as vaccinations against Covid. Please ensure that they are among the priority groups for receiving the vaccine.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The JCVI have advised that the vaccine should be prioritised for care home residents and staff, followed by people over 80 and health and social care workers – including home carers.
“We recognise the vital role unpaid carers play in caring for vulnerable individuals and we will provide further details on their access to the vaccine in due course.”