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Ministers cannot ignore the warning signs as care homes risk being overwhelmed again

The vaccine provides real hope for care users, staff and families that the nightmare they face will end, but we are in a race against time, writes Liz Kendall MP. | PA Images

5 min read

We cannot protect the NHS if we fail to protect social care. With growing pressures, government must spell out what immediate extra support can be provided for carers.

After so much sacrifice from the public, we face an extremely serious threat from Covid once more. Over 32,000 Covid patients are in hospital and 46,000 hospital staff are currently off work sick with the virus. 

Staff to patient ratios in acute and intensive care are stretched to the limit. All but the most urgent operations are being cancelled in many parts of the country, including cancer care. Ambulances are queuing for hours outside hospitals to get seriously ill patients into beds, and some hospitals are even running dangerously low of oxygen supply.

While most attention is understandably focused on the pressures facing the NHS, we have to remember that we cannot protect the NHS if we fail to protect social care. Yet once again, there are warning signs of pressures building in social care, which I fear are being downplayed or ignored.

The number of outbreaks in care homes has tripled over the last month. Staff shortages are between ten and forty percent. The latest weekly death rates in care homes – 824 for the week ending 8th January – have doubled since November and are the highest since May.

Ministers must urgently heed these warnings. Not just because - after more than 20,000 deaths from Covid-19 in care homes so far - we must do everything possible to protect residents. Or because care workers and unpaid family carers are physically and emotionally shattered after 11 months at the front line and deserve more help and support. But because if we can’t keep people safely in their own homes or in care homes – or move them back home from hospital when they are medically able to leave - then the whole system will buckle under the strain.

Transforming social care must be a national mission

After all the problems with Covid patients being discharged to care homes that couldn’t cope earlier this year, government should have finally gripped this issue and delivered a proper plan. But yesterday we learnt that only 118 care homes have been designated as safe to accept Covid patients from hospital, when the government promised in November there would be at least 500.

Frontline care workers are still chronically undervalued and underpaid. Almost three quarters don’t even earn the real living wage, despite doing some of the most important work in society. Millions more unpaid family carers are being stretched to breaking point trying to look after the people they love.

The government must spell out what immediate extra support can be provided for care workers and family carers during the next two to three months, when the pressures will be the greatest they have ever been.

The vaccine provides real hope for care users, staff and families that the nightmare they face will end, but we are in a race against time. Government must leave no stone unturned in delivering on its commitments to vaccinate all care home residents and staff by the end of this month. They should publish daily vaccination rates for care home residents and staff, so we know if they’re on track to complete them in under three weeks’ time. People need to know when they can start visiting their relatives in care homes again. 

As we begin to emerge from lockdown, we must resolve to build back a better Britain, not go back to business as usual. Nowhere is this more true than for social care.

In July 2019, the Prime Minister promised on the steps of Downing Street he had a plan to fix the crisis in social care. A year later, he again claimed his government ‘won’t wait’ to fix the problem.

Yet 6 months on, his plan is still nowhere to be seen and delayed until sometime later this year.

In October, the Health Minister Lord Bethell said: “there simply isn’t the … political capacity to take on major generational reform … in the midst of this massive pandemic.” Yet this is precisely the time we need a long-term plan of far reaching reforms to give people hope that a better future is possible. 

We need a system of social care that works for older people and adults with physical and learning disabilities, who make up a third of the users and half of the budget of social care but are too often ignored. Services should fundamentally shift towards prevention and early intervention, to help people stay living independently at home for as long as possible.

Social care should be joined up with, but not run by, the NHS - so people don’t have to battle their way around the system. Proper funding is needed after a decade of cuts, so care workers receive the pay and training they deserve, families are given decent support and help from the wider community.

This pandemic has proved, once again, just how important our families are, but it has also brutally exposed the fundamental flaws in the system of social care on which so many families depend.

The reality of modern family life means more of us will need care, and need to care. So if we want to provide dignity and security for all older and disabled people, if we want to put families first and offer everyone hope for a better future, then transforming social care must be a national mission.

This is one of the biggest challenges facing our country. Ministers must act – and now.


Liz Kendall is the Labour MP for Leicester West and shadow minister for social care.

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