The Guardian view on recognising care work: a royal charter would help | Editorial | Opinion

During the past week, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has been the butt of much-deserved criticism over the mishandling of the coronavirus crisis in care homes. On crucial issues, from testing for the disease to the provision of protective equipment to employees, the government’s response has been unacceptably sluggish and inadequate.

Given that depressing backdrop, it was understandable that Mr Hancock’s unveiling of an NHS-style green badge for care workers was treated with a degree of derision. As one senior union official put it: “Our care workers need more than a badge and a pat on their head to define their precious role in society.”

When vital kit continues to be urgently needed on this neglected frontline – and pay rates remain so shamefully low – that is clearly true. It will still be true when the worst of the Covid-19 epidemic is over. But it is worth noting that Care England, which has been in the vanguard of stinging attacks on the government, was generous about the introduction of the new badge. The charity tweeted that the sense of recognition it symbolised “means a lot to the sector.

Restoring dignity and status to the labour of the men and (mostly) women who work in social care is fundamental to fixing what has become a national scandal. Care work should be understood as a demanding but prestigious vocation that is crucial to the common good. Instead, it has been treated as a low-cost factor of production, particularly by private equity firms seeking disproportionate levels of return in order to pay out dividends. The current crisis has only reinforced an existing perception among care workers that they are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to matters of public health.

The new shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Rachel Reeves, recently called for a Royal College of Care Work to be created, taking as its model those already established by charter for nurses, GPs, pharmacists and occupational therapists. Royal colleges give enhanced status and influence to occupations, contribute to a sense of professional pride and help foster a collective ethos. In the case of venerable institutions such as the Royal College of Physicians, granted its charter by Henry VIII in 1518, they pass on wisdom and experience that has been acquired over many generations.

At one remove from both the market and the state, royal colleges give a high-profile platform to practitioners’ perspectives and powers to improve and regulate standards. The future of vital sectors such as social care should not be driven solely by considerations of cost or short-term political expediency. A Royal College of Care Work could, for example, provide invaluable guidance on the future uses and dangers of automation in the care industry.

As we all live longer, the country’s care workers enable a dysfunctional sector to stagger on. They work long hours, often on zero-hours contracts with unpredictable shift patterns. As well as the vulnerable of all ages, they care for the people who cared for the rest of us when we were growing up. It is time to give their occupation the social standing it merits. A royal college for a neglected vocation is an idea that deserves proper consideration.

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