Ministers must address ‘lack of knowledge’ of social care

Former health and social care secretary Jeremy Hunt

Government ministers must address the lack of knowledge and experience of social care within the Department of Health and Social Care and senior levels of the NHS, a group of MPs have recommended.

The recommendation is one of four related to social care in a report by the House of Commons science and technology and health and social care committees examining the initial UK response to the Covid pandemic.

MPs said prominence of the sector within the department must be enhanced and that it should set out how it plans to retain the expertise of the social care taskforce on a more permanent basis.

The cross-party report, Coronavirus: lessons learned to date, found the ‘lack of priority’ that witnesses said was ascribed to social care during the early stages of the pandemic was ‘illustrative of a broader and longer-standing issue’ in the system.

‘The most damaging way in which the prioritisation of the NHS over social care manifested itself during the first wave of the pandemic was in the rapid discharge of people from hospital to care homes without adequate testing,’ the document said.

Risk in care homes was further compounded by poor access to PPE during the early period of the pandemic.

It also highlighted the impact on the social care workforce, describing it as ‘acute’. Between March and August 2020, 7.5% of workdays were lost to sickness absence compared to 2.7% before the pandemic.

During the first peak, between March and May 2020, the Office for National Statistics recorded 760 deaths of people working in care, nearly twice the average during the same period from 2014 to 2019.

Almost a quarter of social care staff, and 34% of care workers, are on zero-hours contracts. The proportion of care workers working part time is 51%, suggesting that a high number hold second jobs, the document said.

‘The pandemic occurred against a backdrop of issues in social care including workforce shortages, funding pressures and provider instability which successive governments have failed to address.

‘Even without the factors explored above, these long-term issues meant that the sector entered the pandemic in a weakened state which hampered its ability to respond to the impact of Covid,’ it said.

MPs pointed out the government responded to the crisis in social care during the first wave on several fronts, which appeared to have partly reduced the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on care homes during the second wave.

Between 16 March 2020 and 30 April 2021, 41,675 care home residents died of Covid-19, which amounts to over a quarter of all Covid deaths in England over the same period. The number of deaths of people receiving domiciliary care between 10 April and 19 June 2020, was over 120% higher than the three-year average over the same period between 2017 and 2019, according to Office for National Statistics.

Other recommendations in the report included the long-term reform of social care, which should be ‘pursued as a matter of urgency’. While welcome, the government’s recent funding announcement did not resolve problems in the long term and investment from 2023/24 remained ‘unclear’, MPs said.

The report also endorsed a previous health and social care committee recommendation of and extra £7bn by 2023/24.

In a joint statement, Jeremy Hunt MP, chair of the health and social care committee, and Greg Clark MP, chair of the science and technology committee, said: ‘The UK response has combined some big achievements with some big mistakes. It is vital to learn from both to ensure that we perform as best as we possibly can during the remainder of the pandemic and in the future.’

In total, the 150-page report made 38 recommendations to the government and public bodies, and took evidence from over 50 witnesses as well as over 400 written submissions. The joint inquiry, which began in October 2020, examined six key areas of the response to Covid-19.

Independent Care Group chair Mike Padgham welcomed the report but said: ‘The government maybe believes that it solved the social care crisis by announcing some extra national insurance funded money. But that extra funding will first go to the NHS, with social care not receiving any benefit for some time.’