The issue of how to address social care has been a problem that has bedevilled – and seemingly – defeated successive governments. So proverbially intractable has this puzzle seemed, it brings to mind Palmerston’s verdict on the Schleswig-Holstein question – “so complicated that only three men have ever understood it. One is dead. One became mad. I’m the third and I have forgotten all about it”.
Having recently served as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Social Care, I had the privilege of acting as a conduit between key representatives from the care home sector and government – ensuring that national policy and supply chains were as responsive as possible to those caring for the most vulnerable. I know at first-hand how the pandemic has exposed, rather than created, stresses with which social care has been coping for some time.
In December, the Government recognised the severity of the situation in the social care sector, providing an additional £149 million to facilitate the rapid testing of staff and ease the problems that have left many care home residents without the solace of seeing family and friends. And only last week, we saw the purse strings loosen a little more and a further £120 million provided to increase staffing levels. This was in response to a direct ask from the sector and does, I hope, signal a permanent cultural shift that will survive the pandemic. This model – of the Government and the sector seeing one another as partners rather than intermittent adversaries – is critical if we are to safeguard the future of adult social care across the country, and in our part of Somerset.
But there’s no denying that care homes do face significant challenges. Their staff are being asked to perform myriad new tasks to ensure residents’ safety while continuing to provide (often round-the-clock) care. And occupancy rates in care homes are at an all-time low, imposing significant economic pressure on those who own and operate them. And given the demographic projections, we can be certain that the strain on the sector will only increase in the years ahead.
But there are measures we can take to mitigate these risks. Firstly, we have to bring adult social care in line with the NHS – ensuring parity of esteem, extending the tax incentives enjoyed by NHS staff to their counterparts in the care sector. We can start funding the adult social care sector in a way that takes into account uplifts in the National Minimum Wage. And, perhaps most importantly, we should ensure that those bodies which co-ordinate and lend coherence to the sector as a whole are adequately funded. This will not only give value to those working in adult social care, but will also enable the Government to anticipate and manage issues which threaten to imperil the wellbeing of those who do need care. That’s our parents, grandparents and, eventually, ourselves, too.