When all this is finally over, what will unpaid carers remember most about the pandemic? I suspect that more than anything they will remember the fear of catching Covid and passing it on to the person they care for, since the majority are on the shielded list, or have conditions which make them more vulnerable to the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic unpaid carers had no choice but to continue to provide personal care, despite having no access to PPE and often risking exposure to the virus, due to their other responsibilities, such as childcare and employment.
By early May unpaid carers were able to access free PPE through their local carers centres, but those weeks of heightened anxiety will stay with them.
Testing was another issue. I’m sure you can remember back in March and April 2020, when only certain groups could access a test. At first unpaid carers weren’t included in the priority list alongside health and social care staff, but by May the Scottish Government had agreed to include them in the key workers definition. An important step for people looking after those who are most at risk.
Then, there is the exhaustion for many unpaid carers who have had to take on an increased caring role due to social care services being reduced and suspended, coupled with no longer having support from family and friends. Research by Carers UK found that 4 out of 5 unpaid carers have had to provide more care during the pandemic and almost 2 out of 3 have not been able to take a break during this time 
And the vaccine, that ray of hope we are all relying on to bring some relief and an anticipated return to normality. How much more so for both paid and unpaid carers who have been at the frontline, shouldering so much of the burden in order to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Scotland is one of the few countries in Europe to include unpaid carers in the priority list for the vaccine. This has meant that many unpaid carers who would still be waiting for their first jab, have been afforded some protection and peace of mind.
For anyone working in health or social care, I am sure all this will be all too familiar to you. Unpaid Carers and paid carers have been walking parallel lines, each with the same concerns and anxieties. Concerns about the implications of catching the virus and risking loved ones, feeling overworked and at times burnt out by the extra stress and pressure and desperate to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
But at each stage of the pandemic unpaid carers have been two steps behind. Fighting to be recognised, to have their needs as care providers acknowledged, to have access to the same protections and safeguards as the paid care workforce. It was only through the work of national and local carer organisations, representing carers’ experiences and advocating for their needs that unpaid carers were eventually listened to.
In the earlier days of the pandemic when people still stood on their front door steps to clap for carers it was important for unpaid carers to be recognised alongside their paid counterparts, metaphorically shoulder to shoulder for the first time ever.
As an AHP, every day you stand (perhaps digitally) shoulder to shoulder with unpaid carers and every day you have opportunities to support their health and wellbeing. By reflecting and acting on these daily opportunities you can identify, engage and support carers and through doing so help to change the current picture. As we move out of lockdown and seek to address the deficits and shortfalls that have been exposed in our health and social care system, unpaid carers need once again to be acknowledged alongside their paid colleagues. To be viewed as equal and valued partners, in need of not just recognition, but like the paid workforce, better rights, standards and conditions.
Next steps: Equal Partners in Care is a suite of learning resources designed to help you develop and enhance your practice alongside carers as equal partners. Visit: https://learn.nes.nhs.scot/19211/
Claire Cairns, Network Coordinator – Coalition of Carers in Scotland (COCIS)