In his statement earlier today, the Chancellor claimed to be targeting support where it is most needed, but one early and obvious lesson from the covid pandemic was the disinvestment and chronic underfunding of social care, which led to a system that was ill-prepared for that pandemic. The 2018 report into social care from the other place, led by Lord Forsyth, found that the social care system needed around £8 billion, just to return quality and access to the sub-optimal levels of 2009-10. According to Age UK, councils now say that they need an additional £6 billion on top of that to meet the extra costs of covid-19. Therefore, a minimum investment of £14 billion is urgently required to return social care in England to a pre-austerity position.
The social care system entered the pandemic underfunded, understaffed, undervalued, and at risk of collapse. Any response to covid-19, however vast or comprehensive, would have needed to contend with that legacy of political neglect. It is telling of this Government’s approach to social care that a recent Health Foundation report found evidence that
“the government acted too slowly and did not do enough to support social care users and staff”.
As has become all too clear throughout the recent crisis, in England protecting social care has been given far more priority than the NHS. As we have all witnessed, the Government’s handling of the covid crisis has left much to be desired, as we have seen with most clarity in the major and widespread problems that have been experienced in social care in England. In the most extreme cases, councils are now meeting a person’s needs only if not doing so would breach their human rights.
Jeremy Hunt is on the record as claiming that he wanted to produce a 10-year plan for social care to match the one drawn up for the NHS two years ago, but that that was blocked by the Treasury. He said:
“The political pressure is never as great for social care funding but the reality is additional NHS funding will be wasted if we don’t sort out social care.”
He is right: the crisis in social care cannot be ignored. Just as the numbers of people going without care will continue to rise, in particular with respect to long covid sufferers, so will the pressure on the NHS and the public purse. We are a year on from the statement on the steps of No. 10 in which the Prime Minister claimed that he would “fix” social care, but like so many of the Prime Minister’s promises, that claim was without substance.
When the Minister for Care appeared before the Health and Social Care Committee last week, I asked why the Government’s professed dedication to the reform of social care was not reflected in policy. I received a terse response:
“Clearly, the Department has been dealing with a pandemic.”
But that is precisely why reform must push ahead. I echoed the words of Ed Davey:
“The Covid crisis makes the need to fix social care more urgent, not less.”
Despite all that, the Minister was completely unable to provide any response beyond a vague, non-committal commitment. If that is a measure of the Government’s commitment to target support where it is most needed, they have failed to learn the most vital lesson of the pandemic.