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That is a very fair point. We are only beginning to understand just how precarious a lot of people’s household incomes are in this economy. It is going to take concerted Government effort to support people, but it is also going to take everyone in the private sector who has a debt with an individual holding off enforcing that debt while this crisis comes through. Again, that is something we need to work on. I am afraid I will not be able to take any more interventions.
Social care has been mentioned a couple of times already. Unfortunately, once again, we have a Budget in which social care is not addressed. Local authorities have had £8 billion cut from their adult social care budgets over the past decade, leaving people struggling without any care at all. Our social care system is already at breaking point, and it is likely that the spread of coronavirus will test it even further. Without proper measures to protect people in care homes and those who receive care in their own home, there could be tragic consequences. It is crucial that social care receives the same attention from the Department as the NHS. We expect to see a plan to advise people in social care along the lines we have discussed.
As my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty mentioned, those in the social care sector have raised particular concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment. That equipment, which is crucial to protect staff and patients, is just as necessary in social care settings as in the NHS. I have heard from local care companies about difficulties sourcing hand sanitiser, to name but one example. As equipment runs low, how will care staff, including those who are self-employed, have the equipment they need to continue to keep patients safe?
However, the biggest concern for the social care sector is whether it will have the staff it needs to deal with this crisis. As we know, there are already 122,000 vacancies across the sector, leaving staff feeling under immense pressure. We know they already feel pressure, due to staff shortages, to come into work when they feel unwell, but in this case it is vital that they stay at home if they feel unwell. How will the Government ensure that there are enough staff to care for patients when we have far more people in the care sector who are unwell and self-isolating?
A quarter of social care staff and almost half of all home carers are on zero-hours contracts. For some care staff, there is no guarantee that they will be entitled to sick pay, despite today’s announcement. That is particularly true of those who work for multiple agencies or work irregular hours. It is vital that those staff, as a key part of the workforce, feel fully supported if they become unwell. We need a guarantee that all social care staff will receive statutory sick pay. All workers need reassurance from the Government that they will receive sick pay if they are unable to work.
Over the past few days, a number of nursing homes and care homes have made the difficult decision to close their doors to visitors. They made that decision themselves, in the absence of clear guidance. Families are now unable to see their loved ones, and they will want reassurance from the Government that that is the safest call. Will there be guidance on that issue for the care sector?
Inevitably, social care providers will face difficult choices over the next few months. Many will face higher costs. Last year, more than half of social care providers handed contracts back to local authorities because of financial pressures. That causes immense pressure on councils and, of course, worries for the families of people receiving care. It seems inevitable that we will face that situation again soon. Will local authorities and care providers get the financial support they need if cost pressures become too much to deliver safe care? At this difficult time, we must ensure that care services continue to provide the vital support that people need.
What about those who provide care for a loved one outside the system? Inevitably, there will be people who are not able to provide care for a period. The state has no official role to play in that situation, but those people will still need help and support. How will that be addressed?
In conclusion, providing well-resourced and well-funded public services is vital to tackle the spread of this disease, but of course that is not the whole picture. Every member of society will have to play their part. We will all have to recognise that the impact could be felt for many years to come, but we should take heart from the fact that we have a truly national health service and the capacity to rise to whatever challenges we face, so we are better positioned than many to take on this challenge. That will only be true, however, if we can be confident that the services people will rely on in the coming months are robust enough to deal with the storms ahead.
A decade of underfunding has not left us in as strong a position as we would like, but it seems that in the hour of need that may change. We will support the Government in any attempt to boost funding across the board, but we will not be afraid to point out when we believe measures are not enough. Beyond funding, we want messages from the Government about the action they are taking to be clear, consistent and quick. We all have a responsibility in this place to get that message across. Her Majesty’s official Opposition stand ready to give that message as well.