When Boris Johnson admitted just a month after his thumping December election win that he didn’t, as he had previously claimed, actually have a plan for the country’s social care crisis the response was one of resigned disappointment.
In a BBC interview, the Prime Minister backtracked on his pre-election claim to have a ‘ready-to-go’ rescue package for social care – instead committing to a vague promise of bringing forward a proposal later in the year.
The Tory’s manifesto for the General Election left a gaping hole in terms of a plan for the time bomb that is the UK’s ageing population and the fractured system currently in place to care for it.
Just three short months later and the challenge facing those looking after our most vulnerable citizens has exploded into something no one could have imagined at the turn of the year.
Coronavirus has presented an existential threat to so many different sectors – but it is important to remember that in Britain, social care was in crisis long before this horrific disease.
The situation in the country’s care homes is now beyond bleak, to the point where hundreds of people with either confirmed or suspected coronavirus are now dying without even having their death recorded as linked to the illness.
Care England says it expects around 1,000 people in homes to have already died because of the virus – but these deaths are not figuring in official data at the moment.
In Liverpool, at least 10 vulnerable residents have died at just one care facility – Oak Springs in Wavertree – with the majority not being tested and therefore not featuring in the official government figures.
“Staff are grieving and then we lose another friend”
And for the hard-working and ill-equipped staff trying to care for them – it is a terrifying and overwhelmingly tragic time.
Amanda Pettitt, deputy manager at Oak Springs, said: “What I don’t think people appreciate is that our residents are our family.
“We get to know them really well and all their little foibles.
“In an average month we may lose one or two, but to lose so many in so short a space of time is incredibly hard.
“Staff are grieving and then we lose another friend and it hits us all over again. It’s taking its toll and I’m worried for my team.”
Oak Springs was a key example of how the care sector – after years of under-funding and a lack of government attention – was completely unprepared for a major health issue in the country, let alone a global pandemic.
Within one weekend, the home lost two thirds of its staff to illness – and home boss Andrea Lyon had to put out a desperate call for help, and for vital protective gear to protect those still standing.
Liverpool Council quickly moved in and were able to stabilise the situation with extra staff – with volunteers and other agencies also coming forward to help.
But with the death toll rising and many residents still unwell, Amanda says it is still a huge issue.
She added: “The biggest issue we face is ensuring that we have enough staff.
“So many have gone off poorly and if I could wave a magic wand it would be to create a pool of ready-to-go volunteers who could step in at a moment’s notice. They’re hoping to create that for the NHS, but why not extend it to care homes like ours?”
Paul Brant is Liverpool Council’s cabinet member for health – despite facing an increasingly perilous financial situation after 10 years of brutal cuts, the authority’s intervention at Oak Springs has been vital.
Cllr Brant agreed the work and sacrifice of care home staff has perhaps not had the light shone on it that it should have during this crisis.
He said: “Without proper care homes the NHS could not properly function.
“The staff often work long hours for low pay, yet perform one of the most valuable role in our society. When the story of this virus is written, our care staff should receive as many plaudits as our NHS staff. I am proud to have been here to support them at this time.”
“Many of us are very worried and scared”
While the issue of Personal Protective Equipment – and the lack of it – for those on the frontline of hospitals is absolutely crucial – many carers feel they must also urgently be given the protection they need to be able to provide the most personal and delicate care that they provide to the most vulnerable.
One carer who works in Liverpool with people with severe mental health issues said the situation for him and his colleagues is worrying.
The carer, who didn’t want to be named, explained: “Many of us are very worried and scared at the moment, we have ran out of most cleaning products, we are struggling to get the correct PPE.”
He added: “They have provided us with one box of gloves to be shared over two services – so my services of 24 staff.”
He said the fractured nature of the care sector means supplies just aren’t getting through.
He added: “We need gloves just to hand medication out to protect us and the service users from any cross contamination, we are asking for more Supplies of PPE and we are being told daily it’s on the way.
“Staff are also concerned that they have to use public transport daily, sometimes up to 10 times a day, again they are at risk from travelling on the bus and then popping in to someone’s house to provide support, there’s no plan.”
The situation at Oak Springs highlights just what a perilous position care homes are in once something goes wrong – for some residents, isolation is just not an option.
Amanda said: “It’s hard on our residents because of the disruption to their routines and it’s especially difficult on our residents with dementia.
“They take a lot of comfort from familiar faces, voices and routines and they don’t understand what isolation means and why it’s important. Keeping them in their rooms is a job in itself.”
At the moment those providing this care are living in daily fear of contracting coronavirus or passing it to the frail residents they call family.
The Member of Parliament for the Wavetree area where Oak Springs is located believes the government is in danger of leaving the care sector to essentially collapse.
“A ticking timebomb”
Paula Barker said: “Social care staff must be treated the same as NHS workers, the residents of these care homes must be tested and the Government must come up with a national strategy for our care homes.
“This is a ticking timebomb – and we cannot let the most vulnerable people in our society be left to just wither away.”
Sadly, with the coronavirus already taking hold in care homes across the country, it will be too late for many.
But surely, when we are through this terrible time – there will be more than just resignation and frustration at the government’s lack of a plan for our oldest and most needy residents, there will be outrage and there will be change.
Liverpool Public Health Professor John Ashton has been vocal on many points during this crisis – and appears at this stage to have called many things correctly.
He believes that in the same way the National Health Service was borne out of the tragedy of the Second World War, the coronavirus disaster must lead to a new National Care Service.
He said: “The care home situation has been a potential powder keg for some time.
“One of the things I want to come out of this is a National Care Service.”
He added: “The National Health Service came out of the Second World War, because we brought all the hospitals, public and private, together at the onset of the war to prepare for possible invasion.
“This was a national wartime medical service, which became the skeleton for the NHS.
“We’ve been avoiding the issue of what to do about social care for some years, but after this – if there are sadly a lot of deaths in care homes as predicted – then hopefully it will provide the impetus to set up a National Care Service, it is needed.”
But for now, the likes of Amanda and her brave staff remain in the midst of a fight for which they were never properly equipped, with much more tragedy sadly to come across the sector.
She said: “We’re made of stern stuff and we’re committed professionals so we will see this through.
“Our number one focus is the health and well-being of our residents, but my team is at the front line here in terms of personal risk and I worry for their health, too. It’s a battle we must win, on both fronts. And we will.”