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People providing unpaid care for sick or disabled family members and friends are saving Northern Ireland’s health service £5.8 billion in care costs each year. According to new research from the University of Birmingham led ESRC Centre for Care and Carers NI.

The care they are providing for their loved ones would cost Health Trusts a combined £16 million every day, or more than half a million pounds (£0.7 million) each hour, if it was being delivered by staff – an increase of over 40% in the last decade and significantly higher than the equivalent rise in England (+30%) and Wales (+17%) during the same period.

In total, unpaid carers in Northern Ireland are saving the equivalent of 80% of the Department of Health’s entire day-to-day spending budget for 2023-24. 

Campaigners say that Northern Ireland’s deteriorating health system is treating unpaid carers like ‘workhorses’ and called for the immediate return of the Stormont government to reform services.

The economic contribution made by carers has increased by 42% in the last decade and paints a stark picture of the savings they make to healthcare budgets. Without unpaid carers, our health and social care systems would collapse.

Professor Matt Bennett, University of Birmingham

Louise Vance, 43, lives in Belfast and provides unpaid care for her mum, who suffers from chronic heart and lung conditions and memory loss following a brain haemorrhage. She said, “Our Health Trust’s limited toolbox of services and money leaves me in a constant state of high anxiety and stress, scared for both my mum’s physical and mental health and my own. The little support I do get is pathetic and does nothing to alleviate the pressure I am under on a daily basis. Carers like me are unsupported, uncared for, dismissed and expected to just keep on supporting our loved ones under totally unsustainable conditions until we burn out.”

According to the research, the annual amount of money saved by unpaid carers is greatest in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust (£1.3 billion), followed by the Belfast Trust (£1.1 billion) and the Southern Trust (£1 billion).

The research report argues that Northern Ireland’s ageing population, rising prevalence of disability and long-term health conditions and lack of capacity in domiciliary care services are behind the growing pressure on unpaid carers. It calls for a legal right to breaks from caring, the development of a new Carers Strategy and expanded provision of community care packages across Health Trusts.

Professor Matt Bennett from the University of Birmingham and research lead on the report, comments: “The economic contribution made by carers has increased by 42% in the last decade and paints a stark picture of the savings they make to health care budgets. Without unpaid carers, our health and social care systems would collapse.

“In fact, our work shows that people are providing more hours of unpaid care than ever before. We hope policy makers see the urgent need to act to support unpaid carers.”

The research shows that during the last decade, the increase in the amount of money unpaid carers are saving the health service in Northern Ireland (42%) is significantly higher than in England (30%) and Wales (17%).