Covid-19 resulted in perfect storm for care sector already in crisis, probe told

The social care sector was under-prepared for the Covid-19 pandemic as it was “already in crisis”, an inquiry has heard.

Rozanne Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), told the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry that funding cuts and changes to migration rules had left the care sector under-staffed and under-resourced going into the pandemic, resulting in a “perfect storm” when it hit.

She said that as a result the care sector went into the pandemic without a plan for dealing with it and with insufficient stockpiles of PPE, something that she said amounted to a failure by government to protect frontline staff.

Ms Foyer (pictured) also described a “burnout pandemic” that saw many staff leave the care profession after being left feeling “abandoned” while trying to care for vulnerable people in very difficult circumstances.

She told the inquiry: “Too many workers across our health and social care sectors were placed at really high levels of risk and it needs to be understood and investigated by this inquiry that a lot of those risks could have been avoided if proper planning, PPE and guidance had been in place.

“As far as we’re concerned our Governments both at UK and Scotland level really failed on that particular point, and that had a devasting impact on the outcome.”

She pointed to research showing that that health and social care workers were four times more likely to contract the virus than the average worker, and that they were on average more likely to die of the illness.

“These workers placed themselves in some cases in lethal danger in service to their communities.

“We feel that action needs to be taken now to make sure that those that are facing long Covid and those that have passed away as a result of their exposure to Covid are receiving meaningful state support.”

Stuart Gale KC, co-lead counsel to the inquiry, asked her about part of her written statement concerning the impact of austerity on the preparedness of the sector, saying: “You raise the issue of austerity and indicate that that was an issue impacting on the social care sector as a public service, which was already in crisis pre-pandemic.”

Ms Foyer replied: “It was of no surprise to us that much of the preparation wasn’t there given the … overstretched nature of staffing levels right across various parts of health and social care and the cuts that had been made. There was already a recruitment crisis in social care, for example, before we entered the pandemic.”

She added that the sector remained undervalued, saying: “You can go and get a job in supermarket and earn more money than you can doing the highly skilled work involved in being a social care worker.”

STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham echoed this in his evidence, telling the inquiry that many care staff went to work despite falling ill with Covid-19 because they simply could not afford not to.

“Some of it might have been down to the the undoubted dedication of health and social care workers, in this case probably misplaced, but largely speaking it was economic.

“People simply couldn’t afford not to go into their work. We heard that frequently. It was sometimes really, really quite distressing to have to tell people that our absolute advice was that they shouldn’t go into work when we knew that was causing them enormous concerns in terms of their income,” he said.

“The economic issue and the pay issue was absolutely enormous in terms of how people were relating to use their decisions to go into work.”

Ms Foyer also praised the level of engagement between the Scottish government and trade unions during the pandemic, and said this resulted in lives being saved.

“It was a welcome engagement and it was very important that Scottish Government were talking to trade unions, because our members were in a position to highlight issues to them that they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to address.”

Stuart Gale KC, co-lead counsel to the inquiry, quoted from part of her statement concerning the resulting difference between the UK and Scottish Government responses to the virus: “The response of the Government in Scotland was more agile and placed more emphasis on public safety before profit than the UK Government did … and lives were undoubtedly saved as a result.”

Ms Foyer pointed to differences in areas like social distancing and school closures, saying these were “Arguably more stringent measures than happened south of the border at UK level, and we believe that that would save lives.”

The inquiry also heard evidence from John Cairney, chair of the Prison Officers’ Association Scotland (POAS), who explained that it had not been possible for prison staff to follow national guidance due to the nature of their work, and the physical layout of older prisons.

He said: “There were times when our membership were having to go in and perform control and restraint to take prisoners under control.

“So we’re being told: ‘Stay away two metres, wear a mask, walk one way in a supermarket’, to: ‘You don’t need a mask and you’re going to have to restrain a prisoner who’s having discipline issues.’

“So it was just so unreal what we were actually being asked to carry out.”

He said prison officers had been “frustrated” by seeing national guidance around social distancing and wearing masks, when “that protection didn’t exist” when they came to work.

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