With the roadmap to get us ‘back to normal’ apparently on track, one thing stands out: it will be a different normal. Care home rules and guidance started to ease on Tuesday 4th May with further gradual loosening towards the freedom day of 21st June. The continuing roll-out of the vaccine programme is making the difference across all age groups.
The adult social care sector will take some time to recover, however, as the true impact of the pandemic becomes clear, decisions about funding, recruitment to the sector and the viability of those homes decimated by bed vacancies will all become more urgent as the country recovers. Hospitality, it seems, will bounce back as customers flock again to pubs, hotels, and holidays. But care has to rebuild its place in communities with public trust in the sector’s ability to look after the vulnerable being questioned.
There are several things that require government to act quickly, including a commitment to a public inquiry to inform any long-term planning for the future of adult care, a once-and-for-all solution for the funding of residential and nursing care, and an overhaul of how care is commissioned and providers remunerated by local authorities.
If the statistics are correct, the exodus of EU nationals during the pandemic will lead to worker shortages – with the hospitality and care sectors high hardest. With the new points-based immigration system yet to be properly bedded in, this situation in itself could be one of the biggest impediments to recovery in the sector.
During the pandemic, the government provided extra funding and cut some of the processes to recruitment in order to help the sector. So too, it suspended parts of the Care Act 2014 to assist local authorities to move faster in their support of providers and to acknowledge the depletion of staff across the sector as schools closed, staff isolated and shielding become necessary. Now, as normality returns, these measures will also disappear.
Meanwhile, the build-up of backlogs runs across the sector with health having the longest waiting lists, including for things like continuing healthcare assessments. The healthcare sector also faces recruitment issues and there are already predictions of frontline staff so burned out that many will leave, reduce their hours or move to non-frontline duties.
Social care staff could also face the prospect of compulsory vaccines, as consultation on the government’s proposal closes on 21 May 2021. If the proposal is accepted, it would be enforced by the Care Quality Commission through warning notices, the imposition of conditions on registrations, and even the cancellation of registrations in cases of serious risk to life, health or wellbeing. There is no doubt that the take-up of vaccines in care staff is lower than the SAGE threshold. The worry is that mandatory vaccinations could lead to a further staff exodus.
So, the new normal is going to be anything but what would have been regarded as normal just 18 months ago. It would help enormously if there was some agreement over the way forward, with all working together for a better future for everyone, whether service user, resident, staff or owner, across all services in adult social care.
Margaret Ross-Sands W&P Assessment and Training.