Edel Harris: 'We will never have a better opportunity to push for reform'

The chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap tells Stephen Delahunty about the pain of being separated from family during lockdown and why the social care sector needs more than just warm words

Edel Harris
Edel Harris

After spending 10 weeks of lockdown more than 500 miles away from her husband and son, Edel Harris knows the heartbreak many families have experienced all over the country during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The outbreak has been a personally testing experience for the chief executive of the learning disability charity Mencap, because she decided to stay in London after the lockdown started.

The charity boss moved to the capital to take on her new role in January, leaving her son and husband back in Aberdeen.

“I felt it was the right thing to do to stay,” she says. “In hindsight I could have done the work from any kitchen table, but I didn't know it was going to be that long, not seeing my husband and son for nearly 10 weeks was tough.”

She describes the period as a “baptism of fire” that pushed her resilience and put her leadership to the test as she juggled being separated from her family and steering one of Britain’s largest charities through an unprecedented national crisis.

As lockdown restrictions were eased, Harris described the emotional moment she surprised her son, who has a learning disability. 

“I pulled up outside the house to surprise him, we couldn’t hug or touch, but socially distanced at the front door, he took a wooden spoon from the kitchen and asked me to touch one end of it so we could hold hands and said, ‘I want to touch you’, which was obviously a very emotional moment.”

She adds: “I really learned the value of friendship during this time.”

Speaking to Third Sector from her home in Scotland, Harris is resolute in her defence of a sector that needs “more than just warm words” if it is going to be put on a par with the NHS post Covid-19.

Throughout the pandemic Mencap has been involved in meetings at a government level and Harris says the charity was able to help shape ever-evolving government guidance and challenge discriminatory practices.

“There were communication problems from the start,” she says. “But the big change in the context of social care provision – particularly differentiating between care homes and supported living environments - and the use of PPE, testing, infection control, visiting, that was all quite challenging and fast moving.”

“The National Institute for Care and Health Excellence also conflated support needs with clinical frailty, which could have led to some bad decisions, and we challenged that.”

Mencap had to make its own difficult decisions as the situation on the ground developed, and Harris says the charity made use of the government’s furlough scheme but was able to top up the salaries of the 530 staff it placed into the scheme.

“We didn’t want any colleagues to be worse off,” Harris says. “And it was really important to stay in touch with those people, especially those colleagues with learning disabilities.

“We’re fortunate that we haven't had cause to be concerned about redundancies as most of our contracts are with local authorities.”

Harris admits some areas of fundraising income have been significantly affected, like the rest of the sector, and the charity is having to keep an eye on the longer term impact of closing 32 charity shops for four months. 

“Our shops are reopening gradually, we opened two first to test our new customer service provisions,” she says.

The coronavirus crisis has had an enormous impact on people with a learning disability but Harris describes the crisis as an important time for Mencap to influence the future of social care and push for reform, with great opportunities to build on the community spirit witnessed in the past few months.

“The most important thing for me is that society has learned a lot more about the value of social care, and I hope we will be in a stronger position in terms of relationship with the government,” she says. 

“I think our society at large will never have a better opportunity to push for reform, and we’ve seen that people who work in the social care profession are worth more than a badge or a clap on a Thursday evening.”

“I met, along with others from the sector, with health and social care secretary Matt Hancock this week who intimated he wants to put the social care sector on par with the NHS, but we need more than just warm words.”

Mencap is due to be the official charity partner of this year’s London Marathon, which has been postponed until October, but Harris says she is unable to provide an update on whether the delayed race will go ahead as planned. “Fingers crossed,” she says.

“We were so disappointed when it got postponed – for us it was about putting learning disability on the map – but the partnership has already engaged many more people, and we will mark the day in some way.”

With the charity expecting a decision on the continuing legal dispute over the payment of sleep-in shifts for care workers last month, Harris said the charity was preparing for “every outcome.”

It threatened to cost Mencap £20m until the Court of Appeal ruled in the charity's favour last year. However, the trade union Unison applied to appeal the decision and in February the Supreme Court granted its wish, a move Jan Tregelles, Harris’ predecessor, said at the time "plunges the care sector back into uncertainty". 

Harris says: “It’s a shame it's taken a union and a charity to get this resolved.”

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