Pandemic exposes fragility of social care

The lessons learnt from the past few months will be many and far-reaching. None will be more important than the fragility of the social care system.

If ever a situation demonstrated the need to grasp the nettle of social care reform, COVID-19 is it.

I’m not just talking about secure, long-term funding for the sector – although that’s a must. Bigger than that is the need for reform that recognises social care and health as part of a single system that cannot work properly until they’re given parity.

Follow the narrative of this crisis – funding, personal protective equipment, testing – and you can only conclude that social care remains the support act for the NHS headliners.

On the frontline in Somerset, joint working and partnership is stronger than ever. But that’s despite, not because of, the system of funding and division of responsibilities we all work within.

“The NHS stardust is finally rubbing off on the thousands of key workers in the care sector”

Twelve months ago, the first of the Panorama ‘Crisis in Care’ documentaries was broadcast (see first 636). Filmed over several months with our social care teams, it was an unflinching look at the service, the heartbreaking human stories and inspirational staff.

Above all, it laid bare the impossible decisions faced when funding has failed to match demand for decades and when the line between health and social care is complicated and fuzzy – more a hindrance than a help to doing what is right for vulnerable people.

The programmes could – and should – have been a game-changer, with national headlines, questions in Parliament, social care a hot topic in the Conservative leadership contest and further promises of action.

Yet we entered the coronavirus crisis with no Green Paper and seemingly no closer to a long-term plan than when the Panorama crew first walked through our doors. 

The films created momentum and hope. How much of that has been lost and how will social care fair when the brutal financial ramifications of this crisis become clearer for local government? COVID-19 has shown that social care reform is more important than ever, but has it made it less likely?

Right now, positivity is what is needed, so I am determined to see my glass as half full.

First, this crisis should be the catalyst for long-awaited reform. Second, the NHS stardust is finally rubbing off on the thousands of key workers in the care sector. This terrible situation is at least seeing recognition of social care as a valued profession. Let’s hope this attracts more people to work in it.

Third, this country’s neighbourliness, community spirit, community resilience – whatever you want to call it – has been revived. People are looking out for neighbours, running errands for people to whom they’ve never previously spoken, giving up their time for strangers. This matters, maybe more than anything else. It’s the sort of thing we have been stimulating and pump-priming in Somerset long before anyone had heard of coronavirus.

We’ve invested time and money in encouraging and developing community and village agent networks. This has helped us cope in a sparsely populated county with a disproportionally ageing population, and this crisis has also seen those networks strengthened. Will this neighbourliness evaporate once things return to ‘normal’? Or will it grow?

Only time will tell. But if we can make some of these positives stick, then the COVID-19 legacy could be one of long-term hope as well as the short-term pain.


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