Care workers in England leaving for Amazon and other better-paid jobs

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Care workers are quitting to become Amazon warehouse pickers and for other better-paid jobs in a growing staffing crisis which operators now warn could leave 170,000 vacancies by the end of the year.

In a further blow to the care sector, NHS figures published this week revealed slowing rates of double Covid vaccination among care home staff, with 87,000 in England still not fully jabbed. From November, they will have to be fully vaccinated against the virus in order to carry out frontline work.

Underlining the struggle to recruit and retain staff amid a broader UK-wide labour shortage, a care home manager told the Guardian that Amazon’s new warehouse in Nottinghamshire was luring staff with 30% more pay.

Anita Astle, manager at Wren Hall care home near Nottingham, has lost two staff recently to the online retail giant, six to better-paid jobs in the NHS, where vaccination is not yet mandatory, and four who quit because they do not want to have the jab. An evening housekeeper on £9.30 an hour left to take a job picking orders in the Amazon warehouse on £13.50 an hour. The retailer is also offering a £1,000 joining bonus.

“She said she loves her job and doesn’t want to leave but going to Amazon she can work three days a week and earn more,” said Astle. “Society doesn’t value the work being done in social care.”

Related: UK rights watchdog endorses compulsory Covid jabs for care home staff

Meanwhile three-quarters of care home operators are reporting an increase in staff quitting since April, the key reasons being a desire for less stress and for higher pay, and to avoid mandatory vaccination, which comes into effect on 11 November. Last night the health worker union Unison called on ministers to immediately scrap the “no jab, no job” policy, warning they are “sleepwalking into disaster”.

One manager told a new survey of charitable operators by the National Care Forum that the staffing crisis was the worst in 25 years. Eight out of ten operators said levels of service are under threat, with some capping resident numbers even before unvaccinated staff have to be laid off in November. More than 200 managers told a separate survey by the Institute of Health and Social Care Management that they declined care requests in the last month for lack of staff.

41,000 care home workers in England have still received no vaccine at all, according to the latest NHS data released on Thursday, and 18%, or 87,000, are not yet double-vaccinated. In the last recorded week, only 3,459 carers received their second dose, which means less than half of the remaining staff will have been vaccinated by the deadline, unless the rate picks up.

Across England only 82.4% have had both jabs, falling to less than 70% in Luton, Sandwell and Westminster. Care homes employ a relatively high number of young women and a common cause of vaccine hesitancy is fear of damage to fertility and pregnancy, though there is no evidence that the jabs raise the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth or affect fertility.

There were already estimated to be more than 120,000 social care vacancies before the pandemic and the government last month calculated that in a worst-case scenario as many as 68,000 care workers could be lost as a result of the decision to make vaccination a condition of employment in care homes.

Related: Forcing Covid jabs on England’s exhausted care home staff won’t work | Caroline Abrahams

The National Care Association, which represents independent operators, has now warned that care homes across England are facing a staffing black hole of 170,000, equivalent to more than 10% of posts, the worst on recent record. The figure outnumbers the shortage of hauliers that has caused widespread supply problems.

“In the bigger picture the NHS will have to pick up this mess,” said Nadra Ahmed, executive chairman of the National Care Association, who said dozens of providers are reporting staffing crises. She is calling for an urgent review of the government’s “no jab, no job” policy, while others in the industry are calling for ministers to announce a tax-free retention bonus for care staff in England to shore up the workforce.

A care home manager who is losing staff over the vaccination policy, as well as overseas workers departing the UK, told the Guardian: “Working short-staffed is a daily occurrence. Even using five or six agencies, I can only find cover for maybe 60% of uncovered shifts right now.”

In a competitive job market with hospitality employers offering plentiful work, care staff pay rates remain stagnant. They averaged just £8.50 an hour in independent care homes in 2020, according to the charity Skills for Care. Pay rates are often tightly constrained by levels of council funding and per-person public spending has fallen since 2011.

Astle said the vaccine policy is also demotivating staff who are happy to have the jab, because it conveys the message that “it’s a sector that doesn’t value you and takes away your choice”. She pointed out that under the current rules, care staff who quit because they don’t want a vaccination would still be able to visit the people they cared for, because visiting policies do not prohibit entry from unvaccinated people.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea described the policy as bullying staff and said: Widespread care home closures could be the consequence if they ignore the warnings. This would be disastrous for elderly people and those who cannot live without care support.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said the government has tried to boost recruitment with a national campaign and pushing care posts in jobcentres.

“We are working with local authorities and providers to ensure we have the right number of staff with the skills to deliver high-quality care to meet increasing demands,” a spokesperson said. “The vast majority of care staff are already vaccinated and we are focusing on encouraging even more staff to get jabbed to protect their colleagues and those they care for.”

Amazon has been contacted for comment.