A number of coronavirus deaths across care settings could have been avoided if wasn’t for the government mistakenly prioritising the NHS over social care, according to a new report.
An inquiry by the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee suggested that the government’s emphasis on protecting the NHS first and foremost “hampered the ability of care providers to keep COVID at bay”.
The report revealed that the number of deaths of people receiving domiciliary care between April and June 2020 was over 120% higher than the three-year average over the same period between 2017 and 2019, with 13% of the total involving a confirmed case of Covid.
Across care homes, 41,675 residents were recorded as having died of Covid between 16 March 2020 and April 2021 – accounting for more than one in four deaths from all causes among care home residents.
The inquiry found that the experience of the social sector during the pandemic was one of “intense stress”, with some decisions made which caused the experience of service users and their carers to be more difficult and which, “are likely to have resulted in more deaths than was inevitable”.
It cited evidence from Professor David Oliver, a consultant geriatrician and Nuffield Trust fellow, who said: “Protect the NHS essentially meant protect the acute hospital bed base, with everything else a bit of an afterthought. That was a mistake.”
The report noted that staff shortages, a lack of testing, difficulties in obtaining PPE and the design of care settings to enable communal living hampered isolation and infection control.
The impact of the pandemic on the social care workforce has also been acute.
The inquiry found that between March 2020 and August 2020 7.5% of workdays were lost to sickness absence compared to 2.7% before the pandemic.
The report noted that the pandemic occurred against a backdrop of issues in social care including workforce shortages, funding pressures and provider instability which successive governments “have failed to address”.
It went onto say that long-term issues meant that the sector entered the pandemic in a “weakened state”, which hampered its ability to respond to the impact of covid.
“The lack of priority that witnesses said was ascribed to social care during the initial phase of the pandemic was illustrative of a broader and longer-standing issue in the health and social care system,” the report continued.
The Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee have recommended that the prominence of social care within the Department of Health and Social Care should be enhanced and Ministers must address the “relative lack of knowledge and experience of social care within the Department and senior levels of the NHS”.
They added that long term reform of social care is overdue and should be pursued as a matter of urgency.
“The Government’s recent announcement on the future of social care is welcome, but the long-term future of the sector remains unresolved,” the inquiry concluded.
Commenting on the report, Care England CEO Martin Green said: “This is a really important report and a precursor to the full public inquiry. It demonstrates that the myopic focus on the NHS was detrimental. Moving forwards we need to ensure that health and social care are on a level playing field and that there is parity of esteem. We cannot let this report gather dust.”
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said: “Putting in place the policies and resources needed to prevent a similar future disaster is the least that the legion of bereaved families is entitled to expect.”
The Age UK director added that social needed to be better represented and understood in government and the “upper echelons” of the NHS. She called on the government to follow through with its funding and policies to stabilise social care and rebuild it.