Coronavirus: 4.5m people in UK forced to become unpaid carers

<span>Photograph: Jennie Hart/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Jennie Hart/Alamy

An estimated 4.5 million people – three times the size of the NHS workforce – have been forced to become unpaid carers for sick, older or disabled relatives by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to research.

Charities say the huge increase – a result of support services being withdrawn – has happened behind closed doors.

There were already an estimated 9.1 million unpaid carers before the outbreak. The research comes after it was revealed that more than 100,000 people doing unpaid caring for older, disabled or seriously ill relatives had been forced to use food banks since start of the pandemic.

The increase, say experts, has profound implications for society. More than 70% of the new, unpaid carers, the majority of whom are women, many already living in poverty, said the responsibility was the source of significant stress and that they were deeply concerned about how they would cope as the lockdown eased.

Related: ‘It’s just basic survival’: the financial toll of being a carer

“Unpaid carers are the pillars of our health and social care systems, yet many say they feel invisible and ignored,” said Helen Walker, the chief executive of Carers UK. “There are thousands caring round the clock without the practical support they would normally rely on to take a break, while others face increased costs accessing food and care products.

“The government must ensure their physical and mental health is looked after and it is imperative that, moving out of the pandemic, the government rebuilds our care system so that carers are supported and families have the services they need to live better lives.”

The charity also wants to see an urgent rise in carer’s allowance, which is currently just £67.25 a week, and a one-off coronavirus supplement.

Carers UK polled more than 4,000 members of the public over 18. The findings also reveal that the new carers are commonly younger than unpaid carers usually are, and juggle their new responsibilities with paid work. This, the charity says, highlights the need for working carers to be supported as the lockdown eases and they have to return to work.

The research comes as six charities call on the UK government to recognise and raise awareness of the role unpaid carers are playing during the pandemic and to ensure they are supported.

In an open letter, Age UK, the Carers Trust, Carers UK, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Oxfam GB, and Rethink Mental Illness said: “The government should show its appreciation for unpaid carers – without whom the health and social care systems would have collapsed. It must urgently bring forward its plans to rebuild our care and support services, coupled with long-term investment in services and social care reform.”

A government spokesperson said: “The rate of carer’s allowance was recently increased and we are working closely with carers organisations to support carers during this period. We have provided funding to extend Carers UK’s helpline opening times and information and advice services, so unpaid carers are able to access trusted information and advice. We are also working on further guidance for young carers which will be published shortly.”