April 8, 2020 - 7:00am

The Government has updated its rules on furloughed employees so that people can be furloughed if they are unable to work due to caring responsibilities. The guidance on furlough gives the example of caring for children but is phrased to cover ‘caring’ in general, for example caring for loved ones who are elderly or disabled.

This is a welcome update. Carers were already under pressure: according to research for Carers Week, almost three quarters (71%) of carers suffer from mental ill health as a result of caring, while 61% said their physical health had also suffered. And social care services, stressed by frozen local authority budgets and steadily rising demand, are now facing an acute crisis as the demand for help with caring rockets even as care staff are forced to take time off due to illness.

But this rule change will likely be most significant for parents. School and childcare spaces have remained open for ‘key workers’ since lockdown began, but many of the country’s working parents have struggled to cope with working from home while also caring for children. In practice, more often than not, this means mothers. 51% of mothers with a child under 11 work part-time compared to 18% of men, presumably in order to make time for the 60% more unpaid household and caring work women perform compared to their male partners. This in turn is reflected in the ‘gender pay gap’, much of which can be accounted for by women treating caring as of equal or greater importance to paid work.

For a long time, public policy has appeared to see women’s preferences in regard to the balance of work and care as a problem to be solved, in order to get women into the workplace. The updated furlough rules departs from this trajectory, reflecting a deserved recognition that for all but the most career-oriented, loved ones ultimately take priority over career. This truth has long been reflected by the preferred working patterns of all but the most high-flying working women.

More generally, we should welcome an implicit recognition that caring is ‘key work’ not just in its paid but also its unpaid form. The everyday business of caring for loved ones has long been treated as the poor relation of the working world: a poorly supported and dowdy option for people who can’t find something more impressive to do. But as has already been remarked elsewhere, coronavirus has revealed society’s ‘key workers’ to be in many cases roles we have systemically underpaid and undervalued: fruit picking, waste collection, nursing and shelf stacking to name a few. The change to furlough rules should be seen as a grudging acceptance that informal care is also key work.

Perhaps I’m hopelessly idealistic but if one positive thing comes out of this horrible plague, it will be a shift in the importance we assign different kinds of work. And, perhaps, a greater measure of respect for the carers, both paid and informal, whose duties are revealed as not an impediment to achieving ‘greater things’ but more essential to the social fabric than many, if not most, of those supposedly greater things.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.