Fuel prices and the cost of living: making a bad situation worse for unpaid carers and domiciliary care

Published 21/07/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

The cost of living crisis is having a significant impact on unpaid carers and domiciliary care workers providing support in people’s homes, at a time when the social care sector is already under serious pressure.

There are concerns that many unpaid carers, who were already struggling financially, are being pushed into poverty.

And rising fuel costs are causing more domiciliary care workers to leave the sector, making an unprecedented situation with staffing shortages even worse.

Many unpaid carers face financial hardship

Carers Week research found that more care is being provided by unpaid carers than ever before, with 23% of adults in Wales (approximately 584,134 people) providing unpaid care to family or friends, a higher percentage than in the other UK nations.

The intensity of care they are providing has also increased. The number of people providing over 50 hours care per week has risen by 30% across the UK. Providing more care often reduces the chance to cope financially as carers are less able to work, “pushing them into poverty and financial hardship”.

Research by Carers Trust (February 2022) found that almost half (48%) of unpaid carers surveyed had to give up paid work because of their caring role. 42% said they had to cut back on other household expenditure to manage caring, and 31% had to cut back on food.

As our article on the cost of living for disabled people sets out, unpaid carers often face additional living costs. This includes higher energy costs to help manage the cared for person’s condition and to power specialist equipment; higher food bills due to specific nutritional requirements; and higher transport costs due to accessible transport needs and increased travel to medical appointments.

Our son relies on life saving equipment which must be constant and available at all times i.e., a hospital pressure mattress, an oxygen nebulizer, suction hoist, air conditioning, heating and so on. (Carers UK survey)

Mum is bedbound with advanced Parkinsons so she needs the house to be quite warm especially when she is being bed-bathed, etc. but we can't afford to keep the heating turned up high. (Carers UK survey)

Carers UK found that over half (51%) of unpaid carers in Wales said they were unable to manage their monthly expenses. The February 2022 research found that 66% of carers had cut back on heating; and 41% of carers were worried they would have to use a foodbank in the months ahead.

Stakeholders say this financial pressure is unsustainable, and will lead to carers breaking down and being unable to continue caring – passing the costs of doing so onto local authorities and the state.

How have governments responded to the costs of living pressures facing unpaid carers?

The Welsh Government says it recognises that unpaid carers will be exposed to greater financial pressures than others. In March it announced a £500 support payment for carers receiving Carer’s Allowance (around 57,000 carers in Wales).

In June, the Welsh Government also extended funding for the Carers Support Fund which enables carers to apply for grants of up to £300 to pay for food, household items and electronic items.

On 19 July, the Welsh Government extended its Winter Fuel Support Scheme so that more households, including those on Carers Allowance and disability benefits, will be eligible for the £200 payment.

These moves have been welcomed, but stakeholders believe further action is still needed.

Carers Trust highlighted its disappointment that the UK Government’s £650 support payment (to help benefits claimants with living costs) doesn’t apply to those on Carer’s Allowance.

Carer’s Allowance rose by 3.1% in April 2022, while inflation is expected to reach 11% later this year

Like disability charities, carers organisations are calling on the UK Government to take immediate action to increase Carer’s Allowance and other benefits in line with inflation. Stakeholders also want the UK Government to immediately extend the Warm Home Discount scheme to ensure that it includes carers.

More domiciliary care staff are leaving the sector

There is a workforce crisis in social care, with significant staff shortages, and major problems in recruiting and retaining staff, particularly in domiciliary care – those who care for people in their own homes .

The impact of domiciliary care staff shortages is being felt right across the health and social care sectors. Severe staff shortages are reducing service capacity, and resulting in people having to stay in hospital longer than necessary as care packages can’t be put in place at home. Concerns have also been raised that the lack of homecare is leading to some older people being placed in residential care as an interim measure, which in many cases becomes permanent.

Now the cost of living crisis is making the situation even worse; with more domiciliary care staff leaving the sector due to the rising price of fuel. The job involves travelling to multiple homes a day to provide care, and the relatively low wages don’t cover the costs.

The situation is particularly stark for those living in rural areas. For example a care worker in Ceredigion said she regularly drives over 600 miles a week and can no longer afford the petrol. Another care worker told the media that three quarters of her salary goes on fuel and she won’t be able to do the job for much longer. A care provider in Denbigh reported that “some staff had been coming in crying saying they couldn't afford the fuel”.

In March 2022, the Homecare Association surveyed domiciliary care providers across the UK and found:

  • Half of providers said care workers had requested an increase in the mileage rate;
  • More than a fifth (21%) said that care workers had either given notice, intended to look for work elsewhere or had already done so because they cannot afford to put fuel in their cars.
  • 92% of providers were either concerned or very concerned about the effect of the rise in fuel costs on the financial viability of their company.

The Homecare Association says that last month the average UK price per litre for petrol was 46% higher than a year ago, while diesel was 48% more expensive. According to its calculations, this means an extra £107 million is now being spent by the UK's homecare sector annually on fuel in the past year. This is higher than its previous estimates (based on May 2022 fuel prices) of an extra £74 million for the UK, £4.4 million in Wales.

The Homecare Association also notes there is significant difference between the mileage rates received by NHS staff (often paid 54p per mile) and homecare workers (sometimes paid only 10p per mile).

How have governments responded to pressures on domiciliary care workers?

During the pandemic the Welsh Government established a temporary COVID-19 statutory sick pay enhancement scheme for care workers, to enable staff to receive full pay for eligible absences. This scheme has been extended but is due to finish on 31 August, which means many care workers may soon be worse off if they get COVID. Unions are calling on the Welsh Government to make the scheme permanent and to expand it to cover all types of sick leave.

In March the Welsh Government announced an additional payment for social care workers aligned to the Real Living Wage ‘to demonstrate its commitment to social care workers registered to work in Wales’.

In April the Welsh Government announced a further £10 million would be provided to local authorities to support domiciliary care and increase service provision. It said the money can be used to pay for driving lessons for domiciliary care workers and purchase electric fleet vehicles.

Some Welsh MPs and care workers have called for the UK Government to introduce a fuel discount card for care workers and extend the rural fuel duty relief scheme to parts of Wales. The scheme is designed to ease the burden on people in rural areas where pump prices are higher than average, cutting 5p from the standard fuel duty — but only applies to remote parts of Scotland, the Isles of Scilly and a few areas in England.

The Homecare Association is calling on Governments to provide temporary grant funding as a fuel allowance to cover increased costs needed to deliver homecare.

As yet no specific action has been taken to help domiciliary care workers with fuel costs.

As the cost of living continues to soar, so too will concerns about the ability of unpaid carers and domiciliary care staff to continue their roles, unless further help is provided.

Article by Amy Clifton, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament