Report warns social care sector faces extra pressure from unmet need during the pandemic

The social care sector could face extra pressure from the “unmet need” of people who avoided such services during the first and second waves of the pandemic, a report has suggested.

New requests for support from older people to local authorities in England went down from 1.37 million in the year 2019/20 to 1.34 million the following year, analysis by a health think tank found.

The King’s Fund said this was most likely because people avoided contact with formal care services in the pandemic.

But research showed that requests for support from working-age adults increased from 560,000 to 578,000 in the same period and that, overall, the number of people receiving formal long-term care services rose.

The report stated: “The fall in new requests among older people in 2020/21 is likely to reflect a reluctance to come forward for services during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Simon Bottery (pictured), senior fellow at The King’s Fund, said: “This new analysis shows the profound effects of the pandemic on adult social care and the people who use its services.

“It is understandable that fewer older people came forward for services, given the huge impact of Covid-19, but it is worrying that many people may have been struggling to cope and that this unmet need may create additional pressure on services now and in the future.”

The think tank’s Social Care 360 report also repeated a finding it had previously made that care worker pay is lagging behind other sectors such as cleaning.

The latest findings stated that since 2012/13, care worker pay has increased by 18% in real terms, but that the rise has “failed to keep pace with some other sectors”, meaning “people can now earn more working in supermarkets and as cleaners than as care workers”.

The report stated: “In 2012/13, care workers were paid more than cleaners and sales assistants but by 2019/20 their pay had been overtaken by pay in other sectors.”

The vacancy rate in the adult social care sector fell in the year 2020/21, but has risen since April last year and was at 9.4% – nearly one in 10 – in December, the report said.

Mr Bottery said: “Overall, the report paints a picture of a social care sector still struggling to tackle not just the pandemic but the years of neglect that preceded it.

“The Government’s recent White Paper is a step in the right direction, but it does little to deal with some of the most immediate problems like unmet need, underfunding and workforce. These remain in urgent need of attention.

“The introduction of changes to the means test and a cap on lifetime care costs are just one part of the reform that social care desperately needs.

“Even here, it is deeply disappointing that the Government wants to introduce changes that will leave people with low levels of wealth exposed to very high care costs and, in many cases still needing to sell their home to pay for their care.

“We hope this change is rejected as the legislation makes its way through the House of Lords.”

David Fothergill, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “Councils and care providers have worked together under huge pressures during the pandemic and this report highlights the extent of the pressures facing the sector.

“Social care remains under enormous strain to recruit and retain high quality staff when faced with pay issues, unmet need within the sector and pressures on provider fee levels.”

He called for “urgent investment” in adult social care to “ensure the best possible care for those that need it”.

Jackie O’Sullivan, executive director of communications, advocacy and activism at Mencap, said there needs to be “serious reform” to how the social care system currently works.

She said: “It’s not just the quantity of requests that’s important, but also the fact that many people will be requiring more support than pre-pandemic because of the difficult and isolating nature of several lockdowns. The pandemic has caused much anxiety and for some people with a learning disability this has resulted in mental health issues and increased care needs.

“The current social care workforce is already stretched beyond its means and if Government doesn’t invest in them, we’ll see more requests for support being denied and people losing even more of the independence they’ve often worked hard to gain in the first place.

“Something needs to be done so people who need support can access it quickly and anyone who has lost out on care during the pandemic has it urgently reinstated – only serious reform to how the system currently works will make this happen.”

Rachel Harrison, of the GMB union, said the social care workforce was being “left behind in terms of pay and conditions”.

She said: “After two years of extreme pressures on the front line of Covid, minimum rates of pay just don’t cut it.

“Social care workers have left the sector; many more are continuing to leave for jobs in other sectors that pay more, for a lot less responsibility.”

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