The spread of coronavirus presented Helen Earl with a difficult decision. She could continue her business, which does household tasks for the elderly, running the risk of infecting them with Covid-19 when she enters their homes. Or, she could pause work to reduce the danger, which would cut off vulnerable people from her help, and slash her own income.
Earl’s first instinct was to continue working, so she applied for one of the school places set aside for key workers for her nine-year-old daughter, Eliza. She thought this could allow her to keep running her Ascot-based business, Helen’s Helping Hands – a cleaning, shopping and gardening service for the elderly and people with long-term health conditions.
Not only would this help her clients run their homes, it would also provide them with valuable company during these weeks of solitude.
But even before the UK lockdown began last week, Earl, 48, was losing business. Several clients with severe health conditions cancelled their usual services as soon as the Prime Minister announced that they should be “shielded” from almost all human contact.
“They say they would eventually love to re-engage us, when things are settled, but we can’t expect them to pay retainer fees as they are elderly and we don’t know how long this will last,” Earl says.
It quickly became clear that even for her lower-risk clients, keeping her daughter in school while Earl went to their homes might not be possible. “As I thought about it more and more, I realised I couldn’t risk sending her there,” Earl says. “If the other children weren’t following the guidelines, then she could pick up the virus and I could pass it on to my clients. I realised it would be better for everyone for me to homeschool.”
Before she stopped working, Earl made sure all the essential services would still be provided while she was looking after her daughter. She passed some clients onto other self-employed assistants who could more easily keep themselves away from sources of infection. “I haven’t left anyone unsupported,” she says. “The ones with carers will be OK, but the ones we do cleaning for? Well, they just won’t have cleaning for a little bit.”
Earl is still working where she can to help her clients, going shopping for some and leaving food outside their homes. She is also providing emotional support through these tough times: “I’m phoning my clients so they can have a natter, otherwise some won’t talk to anyone.”
This all has to be done around her daughter Eliza’s homeschooling and online dance lessons. “While she’s doing her dancing, I know I can go and make some calls to clients when I won’t be interrupted,” she laughs.
But even if her clients are provided for at this time, Earl herself isn’t finding it easy. She says she is fortunate to receive working tax credit and child tax credit that will tide her over for a month or so. But that won’t last her until the self-employed grant comes through from the Government; last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled plans to support the self-employed with cash grants of up to 80 per cent of their monthly profits, but these won’t be available until June.
“Who knows what I’ll do for May?” Earl says. “It’s a few months away, and I’m thinking about things week by week.”
For help, many struggling self-employed people are contacting Turn2Us, a nationwide charity providing emergency grants and practical information for those facing financial hardship. It has seen a huge spike in applications for its grants since the country went into lockdown. The Telegraph is raising funds for Turn2Us in our new Coronavirus Appeal: your donations will help pay for many more emergency grants.
Earl has used Turn2Us several times with her clients, particularly its online benefits calculator, which works out how much pension allowance someone is entitled to. “The website is so useful,” says Earl. “A lot of elderly clients don’t have access to the internet, so it is so helpful for them to have me to help them navigate it when I am visiting.”
She has seen how beneficial this source of information has been. “One client with a long-term health condition just retired and we weren’t sure if he would be entitled to pension credit or not,” she says. “Using the calculator we found out that he was, and he got more money.”
Even though Earl has had to pause her business, she doesn’t want to be idle in the upcoming months. “I realise I can still help so I’ve signed up for the local volunteer scheme run by the council.”
She hopes that her business will be able to come back to life once this is over. For now, she is trying not to think about the long term, and instead focuses on what needs to be done each day. “I’m doing what everyone else in the country is doing - winging it.”
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