Without wishing to draw comparisons between the horrors of war and the current pandemic, it does, however, feel like we too are taking a momentary pause, a stop for breath after what has been an awful period in the history of caring for people.
We can’t be sure what will come next. Death and infection rates for Covid-19 have been coming down, but are now creeping back up again. People are returning to work, children to school. But in some parts of the country lockdowns are being considered and imposed. It feels like an uneasy peace, a temporary suspension of hostilities that might be punctuated by a full-blown return of Covid-19 for the winter.
Speaking as Chair of the Independent Care Group, which represents care providers, we have felt throughout this like we have been fighting on too many fronts at once during the pandemic without enough support from the Government, although a few local authorities, in particular North Yorkshire County Council, have done a lot to assist us.
From the outset, we knew that care would be a front line in the fight against Covid-19, both in care and nursing homes and in looking after people in their own homes too. We look after some of the country’s oldest and most vulnerable who we knew would be susceptible.
And yet with most of the attention on NHS healthcare and ensuring our hospitals did not get overwhelmed, there was little help for care providers. Difficulties in accessing personal protective equipment and proper testing were just some of the ways our hands were behind our backs as we helped tackle the pandemic.
Many providers took the decision to lockdown homes early, causing upset for relatives who wanted to see their loved ones.
Providers made a contribution to help the NHS and the Government by taking those with Covid-19 into our care and nursing homes and also looking after people in their own homes. But with that decision came many sleepless nights because by taking these people in we were putting the health of other residents and staff at risk.
We were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t. Providers found themselves under some unpleasant media scrutiny, merely for doing what they thought best in the fight against coronavirus.
As with all of these things, there was no recognition from the Government of the actions we were taking. Indeed, the Prime Minister, with some ill-chosen words, criticised social care. Appeals for better financial support largely fell on deaf ears.
And even as the impact of the first wave of Covid-19 has eased, the pressures upon care providers have not. As they try to renew their insurance, providers are finding few insurers willing to take the risk. And those that are have set extremely high premiums. Even with an increase in cover premium, providers still won’t be covered for Covid-19 in the future.
We appealed to the Government to support providers over this insurance issue and also to indemnify care providers against insurance claims which might be made over residents who die from Covid-19 whilst under providers’ care. We have not received a reply.
The Government wants social care’s support, but when it comes to supporting us financially and protecting us against insurance costs, the Government has washed its hands of us.
Providers have been criticised in some quarters for keeping our residents in lockdown when restrictions elsewhere were being lifted. But having seen what coronavirus has done these past six months and the death, sickness and heartbreak it has brought, it is understandable that care providers believe the risks are too great to take.
If they relax restrictions too early and cases go up, they will rightly be criticised. If they keep doors closed they are, understandably, criticised for depriving residents and relatives of vital time together.
With the weather deteriorating, providers are starting some indoor visits. More risk, more sleepless nights but we have to get residents and relatives back together, particularly where the resident has dementia, despite the risk. Coronavirus might be with us in one form or another, for many months or even years to come and we cannot keep people apart.
Who knows what will come next. What is clear, however, is that the Government can’t continue to have it both ways with care providers. If it wants us to keep caring for those most vulnerable to Covid-19 in care and nursing homes and in their own homes, they will have to support us, otherwise there will be no care available for it to keep calling upon.
Looking short term, the Government will need to provide better financial support – like helping with insurance and indemnities. Longer term, full root and branch reform of social care is well overdue. We need to get better funding into the sector, not least so our amazing staff get the long-overdue pay, respect and recognition they deserve.
We have already seen care providers go to the wall during this pandemic and more could follow this winter unless proper support is provided, both short and long term.
The country needs a strong NHS service but it also needs a strong social care sector. The two need each other like a plant needs water and cannot survive without the other. As we gather ourselves for the next fight, we will have to ensure we really are all in this together this time – or it will be a very long and very bleak winter indeed.
* Mike Padgham is Chair of the Scarborough-based Independent Care Group.
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