Matt Hancock’s badge for carers is a perfectly good idea. The mockery of it is in many cases shallow, ill-informed, revealing and hypocritical.
You don’t need me to describe the badge or the mockery. Anyone with an internet connection and a glancing familiarity with what passes for 'news' these days is aware that the Health – and Social Care – Secretary announced that the Government is now backing a scheme that encourages social care staff to wear a green badge saying CARE.
Part of the aim is to give care workers the same sort of recognition, esteem and access to services – reserved shopping hours, for instance – as NHS workers.
This is reasonable, necessary and overdue. Part of the UK’s social crisis lies in the social care workforce, which is too small and too transient. There are around 125,000 vacancies in social care at any moment, roughly eight per cent of the workforce. Turnover is around 30 per cent, double the average across the UK labour market.
Some of this is about wages, but not all. Increases in the national minimum wage have helped some carers, and this is not the only sector where wages hover around that minimum level. The social care workforce crisis isn’t just about money. Non-wage issues such as shift patterns, the nature of the work itself (turnover is highest among workers who don’t get to see the same care recipients regularly and build up caring relationships) and social esteem also count. They deter some people from entering social care and encourage others to leave.
That last point about esteem is not a small or trivial. A year or so ago, I chaired a UK Research and Investment talk on the social care workforce by Jill Manthorpe, professor of social work and director of the social care workforce research unit at Kings College London.
One of the research findings professor Manthorpe talked about then has stuck with me ever since.
In a survey of care workers, the Kings' team found that it wasn’t just society as a whole that looked down on care. It was care workers themselves. One of the most common phrases used by interviewees was 'I’m only a care worker'. Many reported that their children had been told if they don’t work hard they would end up working in care. 'The lack of esteem has been internalised,' prof Manthorpe said. Our collective disregard for social care has left carers feeling worthless and keen to leave the sector, sometimes for jobs with equally poor wages.
Cut back to Matt Hancock, announcing that badge and saying that social care workers should be given the same admiration and respect as NHS staff. If there’s criticism to be made here, it’s that it’s taken a national crisis to make him put on that badge. But that’s not the common charge against Hancock.
Instead, the mockery amounts to: 'Care workers don’t want a badge, they want PPE and decent pay.'
Now I have no idea if individual care workers want a badge, but I’m pretty sure they do want to be valued and respected more. Will a badge on its own do that? No. But then, it’s not a badge in isolation. It’s part of a campaign launched by Hancock’s department and the care sector more than a year ago to try to change the image and standing of social care work.
Again, a small step, but one heading in the right direction. I wonder how many of the clever folk on Twitter lambasting Hancock’s badge were aware of that initiative? How many of them had given a second’s thought to the standing of social care workers until this year? And how many of them would consider for themselves or their children, a job in social care?
What about the other part of the criticism, that PPE and Covid-19 testing matter more to the social care workforce right now? This is only a criticism if you believe that Hancock is actually suggesting anything contrary to that. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the Health Secretary’s position is that a badge is more important than PPE and testing, that it should somehow be set against limited provision of life-preserving equipment for carers?
To make that attack in earnest you have to have an absurdly low opinion of the man’s integrity, intelligence and political nous. Do you really believe that Hancock thought 'People are unhappy that care workers aren’t protected against a deadly disease but if I give them a badge they won’t mind anymore?'
Is it just possible, and indeed rather more likely, that his intention was simply to offer a small gesture of support to a group of deserving people doing good work?
Here, of course, the critics decry gestures and empty symbols, as if performative acts of support and solidarity are meaningless and redundant. After all, what’s the use in people simply demonstrating their affection and admiration for key workers in the coronavirus effort? Acclaim will not save a single life, you might argue.
And this is a perfectly legitimate position to take, I suppose. But it does leave me wondering: how many of those people sneering at Matt Hancock’s empty gesture have been on their doorsteps at 8pm on Thursdays to #clapforcarers so their neighbours can see them, and posting about it on their social media feeds? By all means, mock that little green CARE badge, but if you do, at least have the consistency to stay inside tonight.