• Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Millions of people across the UK have become unpaid carers for loved ones due to the coronavirus outbreak, new research has found.

Data released to mark the start of Carers Week on Monday estimates that 4.5 million more people are now caring for older, disabled or seriously ill family or friends as a result of the pandemic.

This is on top of 9.1 million people who were already caring for loved ones before the crisis erupted.

Sherry Charlton has moved in with her 97-year-old mother, Greta, due to fears carers could pass Covid-19 on to her.

She said "the relentlessness" of the job "does feel scary" and her mother worries she is a "burden".

Six charities supporting Carers Week are now calling on the government to deliver a plan for social care reform and set out long term investment in care and support services to give unpaid carers the opportunity to take breaks and stay in paid work if they want to.

The charities also want an increase in Carer’s Allowance – currently £67.25 a week – and a “one-off coronavirus supplement” in recognition of the role unpaid carers have played in the pandemic and the significant costs associated with caring.

Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said the data showed the scale of the care being provided behind closed doors.

She added: “Unpaid carers are the pillars of our health and social care systems.

“Yet many say they feel invisible and ignored.

“There are thousands caring round the clock without the practical support they would normally rely on to take a break, while others face increased costs accessing food and care products.

“The government must not take unpaid carers for granted in this crisis.

“It must ensure their physical and mental health is looked after and it is imperative that, moving out of the pandemic, the government rebuilds our care system so that carers are supported and families have the services they need to live better lives.”

Care homes have lost many residents. Credit: PA

Responding to a question from ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand in the daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Hancock insisted it is safe for new people to move into care homes.

“Even those care homes where there are cases have very strong infection control procedures in place.

“In fact, if you look at the proportion of people in the UK who have sadly died in care homes, it is significantly lower than in comparable countries across Europe.”

He claimed "it’s clear that the epidemic in care homes is coming under control", pointing to coronavirus mitigating measures, such as the implementation of lockdown.

“In fact, if you look at the proportion of people in the UK who have sadly died in care homes, it is significantly lower than in comparable countries across Europe.”

A social care task force has been announced to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, as the government expanded its testing regime to thousands more care homes in England.

Mr Hancock said David Pearson, an “eminent social care expert” and former chief of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, will lead the new unit.

"We have to be vigilant about the future, we have to make sure that we are continuing to learn across the world and in care homes and in all of out settings about how we can apply new things," Mr Pearson said when asked what the task force will do to stop similar happening again.

The Carers Week’s research was based on a YouGov poll of 4,557 adults which found that 410 respondents had started giving unpaid support to someone since the coronavirus outbreak.

It also found that 774 people said they currently care for someone and had been doing so since before the pandemic.

Using Office for National Statistics (ONS) population data for 2019, Carers Week extrapolated that around 4.5 million adults have become unpaid carers since the start of the pandemic on top of around 9.1 million who were already caring.

Carers Week also estimates that 2.7 million women and 1.8 million men have started caring for relatives who are older, disabled or living with a physical or mental illness since the outbreak began.

This will often be helping with food shopping, collecting medicine, managing finances and providing reassurance and emotional support during the pandemic, it said.

But some will have taken on “intense caring roles” such as helping with tasks including personal care, administering medication and preparing meals, it added.

The poll found that around 70% of both unpaid carers and adults without caring responsibilities said managing the stress and responsibility of being an unpaid carer was or would be the top challenge when caring.

It also found that around two-thirds of people did not think that unpaid carers had been supported by the Government during the crisis and three-quarters thought it should increase support for unpaid carers.

Liz Kendall, shadow minister for social care, called for more support for family carers.

She said: “The essential role of family carers has received precious little attention during this pandemic so far. Support has been desperately hard to access and many families feel overwhelmed and pushed to breaking point.

“Ministers must provide local authorities with the resources they need to support carers, including with proper information and advice. Carers must be also be priority for regular testing and PPE, particularly where they care for the most vulnerable. “