Carers and COVID-19: Hunger and mental health

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By Dr Matthew Bennett, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology 
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham


“We’ve been clapping for carers throughout the pandemic. The profile of carers has risen. Yet a number of them are silently facing unthinkable hardships.”

Did you clap for our carers?

Despite their recently raised profile, our work demonstrates that without reform of adult social care, the need for unpaid care for someone who is elderly or who has an illness or disability will affect us all. Unpaid carers provide important support for others worth £132 billion a year – similar to the total cost of our NHS.

The negative consequences associated with caring are well documented: unpaid carers are more likely to face financial strain, and experience poorer mental and physical health, and social isolation.

In March 2020, the UK Government imposed ‘lockdown’ measures, compounding the pressures faced by carers, as they balance their caring responsibilities alongside paid work and family commitments. This has occurred in a context of historically tight constraints on funding for adult social care services, exacerbated by the austerity policy adopted by the UK Government following the 2008 financial crisis.

Our current study looks at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on carers’ use of foodbanks, experience of hunger, and at changes in their mental wellbeing. We used a large, representative longitudinal sample of the UK’s population from Understanding Society, incorporating their new April 2020 COVID-19 survey. We identified people who provide care outside their household for someone who is elderly, or has a long-term illness or disability, and compared them to people who did not provide unpaid care.

This is the first study of its kind. Its findings are distressing:


  • Approximately 228,625 carers said someone in their household had gone hungry.
  • Women who are carers were twice as likely as men who are carers to report this (4.35% and 2.45% respectively)
  • Younger adult carers aged 17-30 were more likely to report hunger (12.24%).

Foodbank Use

  • Approximately 106,450 carers (1.76%) said their household had used a foodbank in the past month.
  • Foodbank use for women who are carers was twice as high as men who are carers.
  • Younger adult carers aged 17-30 were more likely to use a foodbank (8%).

Mental Wellbeing

We looked at carers’ mental wellbeing in April 2020 and compared it with the same carers’ reported wellbeing in the 2017-19 wave of the survey. In April 2020, one month into lockdown, we found:

  • Carers’ mental wellbeing was lower than that of non-carers in April 2020 and before the pandemic.
  • Mental wellbeing was 20.5% poorer among women who are carers than men who are carers.
  • Mental wellbeing was lower for working age carers, especially those aged 17-45.

Between 2017-19 and April 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Women who are carers experienced a 12.3% decline in their mental wellbeing.
  • The mental wellbeing of older carers also declined
  • Mental wellbeing declined for carers in employment and those without a paid job.

We should all be worried.

Our report shows that carers are under more pressure than ever as they support loved ones, and some of the most vulnerable in our society, with their daily activities. Unpaid carers are often juggling their caring alongside paid work and while navigating the challenging experiences of furloughing, redundancy and social isolation to which vast swathes of us find ourselves subjected during lockdown.

We’ve been clapping for carers throughout the pandemic. The profile of carers has risen. Yet a number of them are silently facing unthinkable hardships.

It is my hope that our work will continue to increase awareness of unpaid carers’ circumstances and that it leads to improvements in the support that they and their families need.

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