If anyone ever questioned the extent of the crisis in social care, this past few weeks you could not escape the terrifying truth. Two reports from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, a report from the Levelling Up Committee, updated workforce data from Skills for Care, plus a survey of NHS Leaders published by the NHS Confederation are all raising the alarm. The “ravaged” social care sector is experiencing the greatest workforce crisis in its history and this is having a devastating impact on quality of care, NHS waiting times and patient outcomes. We are hearing from heartbroken care workers who feel they have no choice but to find better paid work elsewhere as the job has become too overwhelming.
The independent evaluation of government policy commissioned by the Health and Social Care Committee finds that the overall response to workforce issues to date has been inadequate. The Committee chaired by Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP urges the government to increase annual funding for social care by £7 billion a year. The NHS Confederation insists a £10.50 minimum care worker wage is needed to address the recruitment and retention crisis. But central government remain defiant – no more money. We know that care workers who remain in the sector are overstretched, working overtime to deliver the complex care that’s needed in their communities. The pressures existed before the pandemic, they were exacerbated at its height, and now they’re worse than ever.
The Commons report paints a picture of a dire situation – one in three care workers left their jobs last year, 95% of care providers are struggling to recruit staff, three quarters of care workers are paid below the Real Living Wage. Worse still, when travel time is taken into account, many home care workers are paid below the national minimum wage. The government proudly insist they’ve invested £1 billion extra a year in social care without providing a breakdown of how this was spent and still their colleagues in the Commons say it’s not enough. They have allowed local authorities to raise council tax but overall cuts to their budgets have been calculated at £15 billion over the last ten years. It simply doesn’t add up to an increase. This is gaslighting on an industrial scale.
Social care is a notoriously fragmented system, but for once everyone is in agreement. Without immediate action to fill 165,000 vacancies in social care, the impact will be felt in hospitals and homes across the UK. 85% of healthcare leaders agreed that the absence of a social care pathway is the primary cause of delayed discharges of medically fit patients, and the latest monthly data tells us that there are 12,400 of these healthy patients stuck in hospital on any given day. Over half a million people are waiting for a care assessment and it is the largely female workforce in social care who will have to take time off work to look after family members who can’t get the care services they deserve.
The care workers who approach us for a grant can’t afford to pay for fuel to support people in their community. They often tell us that relationships are the most rewarding part of the job but that the workforce pressures are making it impossible to deliver high quality care. The sector is still dealing with the emotional toll of the pandemic when many of the people who receive care lost their lives and frontline care workers are too burned out to deal with the next set of crises. This all comes during a cost-of-living crisis which is pushing people in secure employment into poverty – Citizens Advice report increasing numbers of people in negative budgets who are being referred to food banks. With chronic low pay and lack of opportunities for progression, care workers have no choice but to leave their rewarding jobs supporting other people to live the life they want, just so they can feed their families. This is more than a national crisis, it’s a tragedy.
We can’t allow experienced care workers to leave the sector for equivalent, better paid roles in the NHS, or low pressure, better paid roles in hospitality and retail. A statement from a director in the social care sector was cited in the Commons report: “I dread Aldi or Lidl opening a new store near any homes because every time four to five staff leave”.
We are the only national charity which exists to support care workers who experience financial hardship, and the increasing demand for our grants suggests that this workforce crisis will only get worse this winter. The amount we give out in crisis grants is increasing by 55% from one month to the next, and over the last year there has been a 27% increase in care workers requesting support with daily living costs. However, despite this high demand and clear need for financial support, we are struggling to raise enough funds and have been forced to temporarily close our national crisis grant programme while we attempt to secure additional funding.
We need government to take action now to address the workforce crisis in social care by increasing care worker pay across all public, private and not-for-profit providers. We have written to the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Steve Barclay, to request funding so our charity can continue to provide life-changing grants to care workers in crisis and keep them in the sector while solutions are found. And we are appealing to businesses in social care, UK energy suppliers and the general public to support our cost-of-living crisis appeal so that care workers are not at risk of going hungry or homeless in 2022.
But short-term funding is only one part of the answer. We want to see care workers valued for their contribution to society by achieving parity of esteem and pay with their counterparts in the NHS, rewarded for length of service, and recognised for their skills via care worker registration. Care workers need better access to training and development opportunities so that social care is seen as an exciting career for younger people with appropriate pay progression. And fundamentally, there must be adequate levels of funding in the system to meet levels of demand for care services.
Without fixing social care, there will be terrifying consequences for the NHS, unpaid carers and people who depend on care and support. We must do all we can to keep care workers in the jobs they love and encourage new people to join the sector.