Every day we are hearing stories of courage and self sacrifice among health and social care workers. I was moved by the news that nine care workers have left their families and moved into the care home where they work in order to shield the residents (Murray, 2020)
The cost of caring at this time can be enormous. It is estimated, for instance, that 19 NHS workers have already died as a result of coronavirus (Ward and Lyons, 2020.) Wingfield and Taegtmayer (2020) describe the psychological toll which is being taken by carers supporting people with a condition for which there is limited knowledge and in environments which may be unfamiliar to them. Unprecedented demands are being made on resources and there are high levels of staff absence as well as uncertainty about the adequacy of their Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In addition, staff face very difficult decisions about which people should have access to what treatment, with little time to reflect upon these decisions or grieve for the people they have cared for and died.
Such levels of suffering among health and social care workers lead to questions how much is being asked of them and if that level of sacrifice is reasonable. Beauchamp and Childress (2013) draw a distinction between ordinary and extraordinary moral duties and arguably health and social workers, by virtue of their professional obligations, should expect to be prepared to undertake extraordinary moral duties in the workplace. We are also in wholly exceptional circumstances when arguments about what constitutes “reasonable” seem somewhat superfluous.
However, health and social workers have responsibilities beyond their professional role, in many cases dependents and there may be challenges weighing up such competing responsibilities. It may also be relevant to consider the duty health and social care workers have to care for themselves in order to go on caring for others. Bensimon et al. (2012) note that the legitimate limits to the duty of care in a time of pandemic are not clear which is, thus, an issue ripe for attention by regulators and policy makers.
There is no shortage of praise for health and social care workers at this time as shown, for example, in the enthusiastic clapping they receive on Thursday evenings. However, we should also think in the longer term and how we might both honour the contribution made by carers during this crisis and minimise the potential for the need for such sacrifice in the future. Better funded services may be a start.
Beauchamp, T.L. and Childress, J.F. (2013) Principles of Biomedical Ethics Seventh Edt. Oxford University Press.
Bensimon, C.M., Smith, M.J., Pisartchik, D., Sahni, S. and Upshur, R.E.G. (2012) “The duty to care in an influenza pandemic: A qualitative study of Canadian public perspectives”, Social Science & Medicine,75 (12)pp. 2425-2430.
Murray, J. (2020) ‘Care workers move into Sheffield dementia home to shield residents’, The Guardian, 25 March. Available at:
Ward, T. and Lyons, M. (2020) “These are the NHS workers who have died from coronavirus”, The Telegraph, 10th April. Available at:
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/nhs-died-coronavirus-frontline-workers-victims/ (Accessed 11th April 2020)
Wingfield, T, and Taegtmayer, M. (2020) ‘Healthcare workers and coronavirus: behind the stiff upper lip we are highly vulnerable’, The Conversation, 9th April. Available at: https://theconversation.com/healthcare-workers-and-coronavirus-behind-the-stiff-upper-lip-we-are-highly-vulnerable-133864?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Latest%20f (Accessed 11th April 2020)