Ed Balls on welfare: “I was embarrassed by my ignorance when I thought I understood”

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Ed Balls has held a myriad of job titles during his career.

But while a decade as a Labor MP culminated in his appointment as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, it was the economist’s subsequent stint on Strictly Come Dancing, followed by the documentary series Travels In Trumpland With Ed. Balls, who saw him turn into something of a small screen star.

Now, however, in what can only be described as a sobering affair, the former politician, 54, has added the title of caregiver to this already exhaustive list.

BBC Two’s new two-part documentary Ed Balls: Crisis In Care sees the former politician’s professional and personal life seamlessly converge as he locks himself in a North Yorkshire care home in the midst of pandemic.

After Balls as he saw firsthand the trials and tribulations of an industry crippled by chronic underinvestment, the project was described as “a revelation” by the man once tasked with defying the government over its funding .

“I think I got into that thought that I knew what I was talking about,” admits Balls. “I wanted to see social care from the inside out, but I didn’t expect to find out that I really didn’t understand the system as much as I thought – especially the personal nature of care and how difficult it is. . ”

It’s a subject that touches him closely, as the documentary openly discusses his family’s heartbreaking decision to move their mother to a care home in 2018 following her diagnosis of dementia some 12 years earlier. A move after a long period of home care, the resolution finally came out of necessity – an experience shared by many families across the country.

“It’s not a program where I come in with an agenda to give a talk,” Balls says. “I think the power of these programs is that they allow viewers to see it for themselves and make up their own mind … It’s not my story or my point of view; my job is to ‘to be there, to open it up and allow all of us to look into it. ”

Reflecting on the moral dilemmas and “maybe’s” that haunt countless families facing similar situations, Balls describes emotional choice and its consequences as a “simultaneous sense of guilt.”

“When they are finally taken care of, they are safer, happier and more secure, and their needs are so much better met without the kind of continual crises that have happened at home. People feel guilty that” maybe we should have done it earlier ‘. ”

Returning to his Nordic roots for the series, the documentary sees Balls join a caregiver named John as he makes 16 home visits in a single day. In addition to learning about the demands faced by thousands of unpaid caregivers and the grueling homework involved in the job, Balls also found himself confined to the Sainte-Cécile Nursing Home in Scarborough for a period of two weeks during the pandemic.

Describing the sense of “guilt” that accompanied the realization that he had long underestimated the “complexities” of social care, Balls says he has since become aware of the pressures placed on those who work in the sector.

“I wish I knew what (welfare) was all those times I talked about it,” he says solemnly of the umbrella term. “I am embarrassed by my ignorance when I thought I understood.”

Having not seen his own mother for 16 months due to nursing home visitation restrictions, the former cabinet minister followed in the footsteps of caregivers by living there in a bid to reduce the spread of the infection.

Undergoing two Covid tests per day, wearing full PPE and explaining that the crew went without a sound recorder in order to “minimize the number of people” involved, he recalls the fact that “most of the staff were not medically trained ”and“ did not have any PPE to begin with ”.

Despite numerous precautionary measures, Sainte-Cécile – like many care homes across the UK – has seen many residents die from the disease. The harsh realities of funding, however, mean that countless nursing homes like the one in Sainte-Cécile continue to be on the verge of bankruptcy due to the dwindling number of residents.

“If a particular hospital has a death in A&E, that doesn’t mean that hospital’s A&E will be funded less the next day,” says Balls. “Whereas in social services, if a resident dies, the funding stops. And in this decentralized system of small businesses, if, in the event of a pandemic, your occupancy rate goes from full to a third empty, it is makes it a disaster. ”

It’s no secret that the UK adult care industry was in crisis long before the pandemic took hold. That being said, Balls describes how the onset of Covid underscored how many caregivers continue to feel “undervalued”, having faced harsh criticism of nursing home infection rates despite a lack of training, equipment and funding.

“I felt humbled how good they are, guilty of not evaluating them properly as I think we all underestimate them, and slightly dismayed that they felt it so acutely,” said he does.

“The staff were living with each other because they were so worried about going home and passing it on to their kids or partners – and then they feel like they weren’t being applauded, in fact, if anything, they were on trial, and that’s really worrying.

A system backed by the exhaustive efforts of selfless individuals, Balls says the lack of pay, training and progression has become a serious point of failure in the industry.

Citing Cameron – a hopeful paramedic featured on the series – as an example, Balls says “the reality is that if he becomes a paramedic or a home nurse or becomes a paramedic, you will go into a national system where there are National training paths and a starting salary … You move up through the ranks, you get the training. And the problem with care is that there is none of that. ”

However, the program is not about “questioning” or “taking a perspective on the details of government reforms,” ​​he adds. In fact, Balls remains “really proud” of what his party did for the NHS while in power in the early 2000s.

“The health service was something we experienced in a very direct way – we had three children in the NHS, we experienced it and enjoyed it and we didn’t do the same for social care,” he admits .

“I feel guilty that we haven’t transformed him. And I’m trying to figure out why. And I think it’s because unlike social work, firefighters, police, teachers or the NHS, I don’t think I’ve fully understood the scale, complexity and challenge of this welfare system and how we force relatively poorly paid people to do incredibly difficult jobs. ”

Ed Balls: Crisis in Care, BBC2, Monday, 9 p.m.


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