Women could be disproportionately exposed to coronavirus because they are substantially overrepresented in the care sector, experts warned.
Frontline service providers told The Independent care and nursing homes could be a “mecca for the virus” due to many of its inhabitants not being in good health, and already being at greater risk of contracting the potentially deadly disease.
Recent NHS figures showed that more than 80 per cent of adult social services jobs in 2019 were carried out by female workers, while government figures show women make up the majority of informal carers in the UK.
Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “The majority of our frontline care workers are women, putting them at risk of getting coronavirus and having to self-isolate or stay off work.
The warnings come as the government announced the number of coronavirus cases in the UK has increased by 87 to 460 on Wednesday — with deaths in the UK rising to eight.
A member of staff at a residential home for people with learning and physical disabilities in Desborough, Northamptonshire, has tested positive in what is deemed to be the first UK case in a care home.
Michaela Hawkins, who works with adults who have learning difficulties, told The Independent she was very anxious about contracting coronavirus herself but also worried for the people she works with.
The 64-year-old said: “Working within the care sector, you are putting yourself on the front line and also the people you look after. If you are travelling to different areas being in contact with their families, friends and other professionals, then the likelihood of catching and spreading the virus is high. I am fearful not just for myself but for the vulnerable people that I work with.
“The three largest employers in this country are the care sector, retail, hospitality — employing mainly women. A great proportion of these are older women. Because of the nature of their work and their age, they are far more vulnerable to coronavirus.”
Ms Hawkins is eager to stop working but is unable to do so because she was hit by the controversial adjustments made to the state pension age, which campaigners say unlawfully discriminates against women born in the 1950s.
The increase from age 60 to 66 has affected nearly 4 million women, in some cases causing homelessness and destitution.
“My husband is 10 years older than myself,” she added. “I planned and looked forward to retiring at 60 so we could have some quality time together. He is only in receipt of a small private pension and state pension so if I couldn’t or didn’t work then we would be trying to live below the poverty line.”
Joanne Welch, founder of Backto60, whose campaign group took the government to court over state pension changes but lost their landmark High Court battle, said she had come across many women fearful of getting coronavirus.
“If they are a care worker and they are going into several homes of the elderly, they could inadvertently be carrying it or catch it themselves,” the campaigner said. “Women born in the 1950s are the sandwiched generation. They look after the elderly and grandchildren. Their contact trace is a huge network.”
Ms Welch noted the World Health Organization’s chief has advised everyone over 60 to isolate themselves and steer clear of crowded places to avoid getting coronavirus due to being at higher risk of getting the virus but added many women in this category are not able to follow the advice due to not being able to survive without a salary in the absence of a state pension.
The warnings women are at greater risk of exposure to coronavirus contradict studies that have found coronavirus appears to hit men harder than women — with the death rate in China being higher among men despite approximately equal amounts of women and men catching the disease.
Vivienne Hayes, chief executive of the Women’s Resource Centre, the leading national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector in the UK, voiced concerns about women working in the social care sector, which supports the elderly, sick, and disabled, in light of England’s deputy chief medical officer admitting the UK will see “many thousands of people” contract the disease.
“We know that women do the lion’s share of care, both paid and unpaid, so it is not unreasonable to assume they will be placed at higher risk of infection, be that in hospitals, care homes or in their communities,” she said. “Also, our government has a dismal track record in adopting a gender lens in their policymaking, which has seen women bearing the brunt of 10 years of austerity.”
The social care system, which is already starkly understaffed and underfunded, has around 120,000 vacancies and the sector could be left short of more than 200,000 staff if 20 per cent are made to self-isolate.
Caroline Abrahams, director at Age UK, said: “Care and nursing homes with clusters of older people living in them, invariably not in good health, would be a mecca for the virus if it can find its way in.
“Some people have expressed concern too that the very poor terms and conditions that many care staff are on, including zero-hour contracts, mean there’s a risk that a care worker who starts to feel unwell may keep working for fear of otherwise being unable to pay the bills. And what does it mean for an essential public service already running with a 1 in 10 vacancy rate if staff, rightly, have to take time off unwell or for a period of self-isolation if they do come into contact with the virus? Older and disabled people fundamentally rely on the daily support they receive.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The UK is extremely well prepared for these kinds of outbreaks. We know social care will be a vital part of our response to Covid-19, with providers looking after some of the most vulnerable in society.
“We are working closely across government with local authorities and providers themselves to make sure the adult social care sector is prepared. Public Health England has issued tailored guidance for care homes and will be updating this shortly.”