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The new immigration rules will pile more pressure onto unpaid carers

Harsher restrictions will only exacerbate conditions for the millions of people who provide unpaid care for their loved ones.

By Emily Holzhausen

The new immigration restrictions announced by the government say a lot about the lack of understanding of, and the lack of value given to, social care. While health and care workers are exempt from the increase in wage requirements from £26,200 to £38,700 per year, restrictions on bringing in dependants (partners and children) on their visas are likely to impact the industry, making it harder to attract workers.

The Cavendish Coalition described this as “ruinous” to services and creating a domino effect. Any further shortage of workers won’t just be difficult for the care sector struggling with high levels of vacancies; for families, any greater shortage of care is likely to be disastrous – impacting on their health, well-being and ability to stay in work.

The announcement could not have been more poorly timed – we’re approaching what is likely to be a tough winter, and we don’t have a designated workforce strategy for care that matches that of the NHS. Rather than support the sector at its toughest time of year, we’ve taken yet another step backwards, particularly as it’s widely accepted that immigration has helped to sustain the social care and health sectors, saving them from complete crisis. Families providing unpaid care need support. Good social care makes a huge difference and a shortage of care can be devastating.

Families are already providing more substantial care than ever before. According to the 2021 census, there was a significant rise in the number of unpaid carers providing 50 or more hours of care per week, reaching peak levels of 1.5 million. At the same time, a report from the King’s Fund describes the care system as “under-resourced” and shows a reduction in services to people needing long-term care and their families.  

Families are having to deal with more complex conditions, having to care for longer and are not getting vital healthcare. More than half of families providing substantial care are not given sufficient support to care safely and well at the point of hospital discharge, leading to unnecessary readmissions with experiences described as traumatic. Waiting times remain high – 30 per cent of unpaid carers have waited more than one year for specialist treatment for themselves. The government should be asking itself questions about whether more social care provision could have enabled more families to get the specialist treatment they needed.

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Our State of Caring survey highlighted the extreme health toll of providing substantial care without sufficient support, with 78 per cent unsure how they would continue to care in the future. Many described the pressure of caring as “unrelenting” and 61 per cent were not sure how they would take a break over the coming year. Most worryingly, one third of carers who were in bad or very bad health said they had suicidal thoughts. Nearly three quarters (73 per cent) continued caring even though they felt they were at breaking point.

It’s not just their health that suffers but paid work, too – 600 carers a day give up work to care, many because they cannot get the good care and health services they need. This affects all industries, but particularly sectors like the NHS where one out of three staff is also an unpaid carer at home. This is not surprising when women have a 50/50 chance of providing care by the time they are 46, and men have the same chance by the time they are 57.

Nearly half (43 per cent) of unpaid carers who reduced their working hours or gave up work entirely told us that they lost £1,000 per month. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found the “caring penalty” amounted cumulatively to £30,000 over six years for those caring over the long term.  

The domino effect will likely mean more far-reaching consequences for the wider economy if the government continues under-resourcing care – nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of employers said they wanted to see more practical assistance for their employees who were unpaid carers, to support their work and care healthily and productively.

Care is too important to people’s lives and the economy to be left with intolerable shortages of staffing. With our ageing population, good care needs to be seen as an economic fundamental, and families must have the care, support and dignity they need and deserve.

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