One-third of people who receive Direct Payments in England employ social care Personal Assistants (PAs) but little is known about how they managed during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our 17-month study explored the experiences of people employing PAs during and after the Covid-19 pandemic to inform and improve care practice. We interviewed virtually in 2021, 15 staff working in disability support organisations that provide support to people employing PAs, including user-led centres for independent living, brokerage organisations and Local Authority-linked support services (i.e. payroll). We also interviewed 70 people who employed PAs (a small number were self-employed) during the Covid-19 pandemic, all but three of whom paid their PA through a social care Direct Payment. Just over one-third of participants were the direct employer of their PA(s), while the remainder were the supporter of the person for whom the PA provided support (i.e. if the person could not manage the employment responsibilities).
We analysed all transcripts thematically. PA employers faced difficult choices during the pandemic, often weighing up the risks of getting help with their care needs versus the risk of catching Covid. Information provided by Local Authorities for people employing PAs was often perceived as being slow, complicated and unspecific. Some disability support organisations changed normal ways of working, e.g. offering new or increased befriending services, and mental wellbeing checks. Many PA employers felt on their own in making difficult decisions, and many would have welcomed help to understand employment law and employer responsibilities; exacerbated by the pandemic. The direct payments system was perceived by some as inflexible and poorly aligned with notions of choice and control, especially in times of crisis. While social workers may be well suited to supporting PA employers to manage their employment responsibilities and care needs, they were perceived as absent throughout the pandemic.