Experts from the Care Policy and Evaluation Centre (CPEC) at the London School of Economics (LSE) have conducted research to analyze the impact of the first wave of Covid-19 on the social care system in England. Their findings shed light on the challenges faced by the sector and offer crucial lessons for creating a more robust and resilient social care system.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on various stakeholders in social care, including care recipients, their families, care staff, and organizations involved in providing care. While the most apparent impact has been the loss of lives, there have also been less visible consequences. For instance, care home residents have been deprived of visitors, and individuals receiving care at home have experienced isolation from their loved ones. The mental health and well-being implications of these circumstances are yet to be fully understood. Moreover, care staff and organizations have faced significant challenges throughout the crisis. However, it is important to note that the impact has not been evenly distributed, with certain groups, such as those with learning disabilities, being disproportionately affected.
Numerous reports and articles have already criticized the initial response to the pandemic in social care in England, highlighting areas where improvements could have been made. Parliamentary committees have emphasized that social care did not receive sufficient priority in the early weeks, citing slow and inconsistent response as key issues. This report aims to identify the factors that influenced the government’s and social care sector’s ability to effectively cope with the pandemic.
In the years preceding Covid-19, cuts in social care funding had left the system facing significant challenges. Many individuals were unable to access the care they required, leading to a heavy reliance on unpaid carers. Additionally, care-providing organizations struggled financially, resulting in staffing shortages and compromised quality of care. The pandemic exposed and exacerbated these preexisting problems, underscoring the urgent need for their resolution and the establishment of a stronger social care system. The lessons learned during the pandemic must not be forgotten.
The research team engaged with individuals who received care, care workers, and support networks to understand their experiences during the initial months of the pandemic (from approximately February to May 2020). They also conducted workshops and extensively reviewed official documents and research reports. By synthesizing this information, they identified three key areas requiring attention and reform.
The first area pertains to the complexity of social care management, which often led to ambiguity regarding the responsible authority during the crisis. The division of responsibilities between various government departments and local councils, along with the involvement of private care services, contributed to confusion. For instance, the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the early weeks of the pandemic faced considerable challenges due to uncertainty about funding sources. This lack of clarity hindered timely assistance, leaving many individuals feeling anxious and isolated. Moreover, the initial government briefings overwhelmingly focused on the National Health Service (NHS), leaving social care neglected. Although efforts were made to discharge individuals from hospitals to care homes, insufficient attention was given to ensuring adequate infection control measures in those settings. Special funding for care homes and home care organizations arrived late, highlighting the need for better coordination and planning to improve future crisis responses.
The second area of concern is the lack of preparedness within the social care sector for a pandemic. Prior to Covid-19, government exercises primarily focused on assessing the NHS’s readiness, largely overlooking social care. Although one exercise did address social care and made several recommendations for improvement, it remains unclear whether these recommendations were acted upon. In contrast to the NHS, which incorporated international learnings into its response, the social care sector did not benefit from similar knowledge sharing and preparation.
This lack of preparedness was evident in the shortage of essential supplies, such as PPE, in care homes and home care settings. Care staff also reported a lack of training and guidance on infection prevention and control measures specific to Covid-19. The absence of clear protocols and procedures for managing outbreaks in care settings further exacerbated the challenges faced by care providers.
The third area identified for improvement is the need for better support for care staff. Care workers, including those in care homes and home care, faced immense pressure and increased workloads during the pandemic. Many experienced emotional and physical exhaustion, often resulting from long hours and a lack of access to adequate breaks and support services. The impact of these working conditions on the quality of care provided is a cause for concern. The research highlights the importance of prioritizing the well-being of care staff through sufficient staffing levels, improved working conditions, access to mental health support, and recognition of their essential role.
Based on their analysis, the researchers put forth several recommendations to build a more resilient social care system in England. These recommendations include:
- Clarifying and streamlining the governance and responsibilities of different authorities involved in social care to ensure effective coordination during crises.
- Developing a comprehensive pandemic preparedness plan specifically tailored to the social care sector, including regular training, access to essential supplies, and clear protocols for managing outbreaks.
- Strengthening the financial and operational resilience of care providers through increased funding, improved working conditions, and support mechanisms for staff.
- Prioritizing the integration of health and social care systems to enhance collaboration and coordination between different sectors during crises.
- Recognizing the value of unpaid carers and providing them with the necessary support, including respite care and access to information and training.
- Establishing a system for continuous learning and knowledge sharing within the social care sector, drawing upon international best practices and experiences.
- Ensuring that the voices of care recipients, care staff, and their families are actively considered in policy and decision-making processes.
It is crucial to address the vulnerabilities and shortcomings exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic in the social care system. By implementing these recommendations, England can work towards building a more resilient and person-centered social care system that can effectively respond to future crises while providing high-quality care and support for those who need it most.