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  • 152,000 rise in number of carers providing over 50 hours of care to just over 1.5 million.
  • Over a quarter of a million rise in number of unpaid carers providing 20-49 hours of care.
  • Surprising overall drop in number of carers from 5.8 to 5 million unpaid carers.

Today the Office for National Statistics has published Census 2021 data about unpaid carers which showed growing intensity of care across England and Wales.  

Unpaid carers provide help and support to a relative or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health condition or who needs extra help as they grow older. 

There is a distinct increase in the number of people providing substantial care, of 20-49 hours a week (260,000) and 50 hours a week (152,000) between 2011 and 2021 and a deepening of the amount of care provided over time. This is significant because of the devastating impact that substantial unpaid care of over 20 hours per week can have on carers’ health, wellbeing and ability to juggle work and care.  

However, despite the pandemic, surprisingly the overall number of unpaid carers has fallen from 5.8 million in the 2011 Census to 5 million in the 2021 Census across England and Wales, mostly through a reduction in the numbers of people providing lower hours of care.  

The ONS suggests a number of reasons for this, including changes in the nature of caring during the pandemic and the high levels of deaths during the pandemic. However, it also suggests that the change in question framing could have made a difference. Whilst the 2011 Census question mentioned providing unpaid care for family, friends or neighbours, the 2021 question referred to caring for anyone. This will have had an impact because people don’t recognise themselves as unpaid carers.  

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said: 

“The increase in the number of hours of care provided by families every week since 2011 is striking and is a continuous upward trend. This is clearly a result of the shortage of adequate and properly funded social care services and health services to support unpaid carers and the people they care for. Funding to help carers take vital breaks and respite, so they can maintain their own health and wellbeing whilst looking after someone, is desperately needed along with significant social care funding.

“We’re really surprised that the overall figure of unpaid carers has gone down and it feels out of step with what families are telling us right now. Whilst we’ll be able to look more deeply into the data shortly, we know that the change in the wording of the question will have had an impact.

“Many people don’t identify themselves as unpaid carers and take years to do so – 51% of carers took over a year even though they were providing substantial care. “Most people consider themselves to be a partner, husband, wife, son, daughter, good friend or neighbour and don’t recognise themselves as unpaid carers.

“We know that there are potentially many more hidden carers out there that could be getting information, advice and support and it’s essential that public services recognise this in their planning and delivery.

“Without the support provided by unpaid carers our health and social care systems would quite simply collapse. It is vital that the Government recognises the pressing needs of this huge swathe of people and develops a funded National Carers Strategy for England.

“This would help millions of carers around the country get the practical and financial support they need to care without putting their health and livelihoods on hold.”


Carers UK estimates that the UK figure would be 5.7 million, using the 2011 Census results for Scotland. Scotland’s own Census results are due later this year.  


Notes to Editors:  

Why has the number of hours of care provided every week gone up? Why is this important? 

Caring for 50 hours or more per week puts a significant strain on carers. This is why unpaid carers often have worse health outcomes than non-carers. Being able to take a break and having the opportunity to maintain their own health and wellbeing is vital to supporting carers in their continued role. If carers suffer from exhaustion or breakdown, this adds significant cost and extra pressure on the NHS and to social care.  

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