The weekly Clap for Carers is something I’ve been proud to join the nation in taking part in, but while this small token of the country’s support is welcome it is is clear it must be followed up with concrete action. Our care workforce have been our forgotten heroes long before coronavirus came along, and though it should not have taken a global pandemic for us to fix the issues in social care, it has meant that for the first time the broken system is getting attention that is long overdue.
One of the hardest parts of being an MP at present is speaking to distressed constituents who can’t visit their loved ones in care homes and are desperately worried about their wellbeing. We’ve seen outbreaks in residential care across the country, and the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics on the number of coronavirus deaths outside hospitals show just how vulnerable those in care homes are.
But these figures only tell part of the story due to the lag in reporting and it’s clear that the Government are having real difficulty in pulling those figures together due to provider fragmentation and the lack of a single overarching body for care providers to report to.
Rather than driving up standards and increasing choice, the massive inefficiencies created by privatisation have meant lives have been unnecessarily put at risk.
Around 97% of home care is undertaken by private providers, as austerity has turbo-charged local authority outsourcing to cut costs. I believe this has also been one of the most significant factors in the failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for our care workforce. The Government has struggled to provide the NHS with adequate PPE, but the fact it is a national body with an existing supply chain and protocols for emergency situations, and ability to more efficiently redirect resources to where they are most desperately needed means this issue has been less acute.
The fact there is no system of registration for carers in England as there is in other parts of the U.K. means that the Government cannot even provide care workers with PPE directly, because it quite literally does not know who or where our carers are. Where testing is available this is not being prioritised for care workers for the same reasons, and coupled with endemic low pay in the sector, too many care workers are turning up to work unsure of their Covid-status because they cannot afford not to and chronic staff shortages are being exacerbated by self-isolation requirements. Indeed, it’s very telling that one of the first measures the Government took in the crisis was to relax local authorities’ statutory duties in care provision, presumably with the expectation this would become impossible to meet with our system so stretched to breaking point already.
Our care workers didn’t want or need a badge from the Government when it was first released a year ago, and that’s especially true now. They want better pay, safer working conditions, and to be able to give the people they look after the quality of care they deserve.
A pandemic of this scale should be a once in a lifetime occurrence, but as antibiotic resistance becomes an increasing concern I worry that this won’t be a generation before we face a similar national crisis. With a shortage of around 120,000 carers before coronavirus, a figure expected to increase substantially if the Government’s points-based system does not make allowances for care workers, coronavirus has shown us that we cannot continue with a system that can’t cope in normal circumstances and expect to protect our most vulnerable in extraordinary circumstances. Lessons must be learnt, and the political will to build a National Care Service that is fit for purpose finally shown.