Covid-19 has shone a harsh light on the social care sector and revealed a service that does not enjoy the parity of respect with the NHS that it deserves and needs if this country is to care for vulnerable adults and older people in the way it should. Discharging elderly patients from hospitals into care homes without testing will, I am certain, go down as one of the top five mistakes the Government made in its response to the pandemic.
Covid also exposed to the public the major challenges faced by those employed in the social care sector: travel time is not always reimbursed, meaning too many are not in receipt of the national living wage, and many care workers remain on zero hours contracts meaning they cannot afford to be ill and off work, putting themselves and those they care for at risk. In fact there is a growing body of opinion that the UK will not be able to withstand the impact of a second wave if social care continues to be treated as a second-class service, is underfunded and detached from the NHS, and is reliant upon an under-valued workforce.
DevoConnect were delighted to recently convene on Unison’s behalf a meeting of former Health Secretaries and Ministers, along with a number of healthcare alliances, who made the case – via an Open Letter to the Prime Minister printed in the Times – that the Government should give the social care workforce parity of respect with their counterparts in the NHS and, in particular, move quickly to improve funding for care sector workers and align pay scales to match their skills.
There is, of course, a wider agenda of wholesale reform of social care, which the Government has promised but like a lot of issues – did someone mention the Devolution White Paper? – seems to be put on the back burner as the Government is caught in the twin headlights of the pandemic and the recession it has precipitated. This is a tragic mistake. In both cases. The best possible response would encompass parity of esteem for, and integration of, the social care sector and the NHS to ensure social care can no longer be the ‘forgotten frontline’ or ‘Cinderella’ service.
A Future Social Care Coalition: Time for a Fair Deal is now coming together made up of politicians from all parties and none, sector coalitions, trade associations, trade unions, voluntary sector organisations and individual care organisations. Watch this space for details of its launch but it is sure to remind the Government that on all those long Thursday evenings we clapped for NHS staff and carers. And that now is precisely the time to seize the opportunity and radically reform the social care sector, starting with a comprehensive social care workforce strategy.
The Government should move forward quickly to meet the public’s and the sector’s appetite for reform through prioritisation of social care reform in the forthcoming Spending Review and via legislation. If we have a second or third wave of Covid-19 without the promise of, and some significant movement towards, genuine and immediate reform we fear for the consequences for the most vulnerable in our society in 2021.