A deadly cocktail of cuts, privatisation and coronavirus is pushing social services to the brink of collapse.
Social care was in crisis before the virus hit, with many care homes going to the wall.
Now on top of battling low pay, workers are also fighting dangerous management practices and a lack of life-saving protective kit.
Healthcare assistant Jennifer said working in a care home in Portsmouth left her feeling belittled, patronised and unsafe. Management bullying and poor working practices forced her to quit last week.
She explained how workers only received surgical masks two weeks ago—and were told to use a single one for a whole 12-hour shift.
“That makes no sense at all,” she said. “Obviously you’ll be touching your mask. But also some of the residents have dementia and some spit at you.
“This virus can get in through the eyes, so why don’t we have visors?”
Jennifer raised concerns with managers, but was accused of being “paranoid”.
And when she started wearing a mask during work, she was accused of “scaring other residents and staff”.
“We should be kitted up so we’re not going to pass the virus to residents,” she argued. “They’re not going anywhere, so if they get Covid-19 it’s because people are bringing it in.”
Recent horrific reports have exposed how Covid-19 is tearing through care homes. Yet Jennifer said the threat “wasn’t being taken seriously” in her former workplace.
“They say, ‘We haven’t got it [the virus] so we don’t need to worry’,” she said. “But I was scared—not just for myself, for the residents.”
Social care services have been transferred over decades from public hands to private pockets (see below). Some 84 percent of care home beds in England are now operated by for-profit firms. Charities provide 13 percent and councils just 3 percent.
Bosses take on contracts hoping to cream off profits from the care of vulnerable people. Residents’ lives are put at risk as quality of care is slashed.
Low pay and poor conditions mean a high staff turnover—so service users suffer from discontinuous care.
Jennifer has since found work at a council-run care home, where she’ll be paid an additional £4 an hour for carrying out an identical role.
But before she left, the private care home manager presented workers with a token of his appreciation for working during the pandemic.
Each member of staff received a balloon and a can of fizzy drink.
Kick the privateer fat cats out of social care
Privatisation schemes rolled out under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair laid the groundwork for Tory austerity that has smashed through the social care sector.
Gordon Peters from the Reclaim Social Care campaign told Socialist Worker that care has been “offloaded from the public system in the last 30 or 40 years”.
Tory austerity has accelerated the care crisis as government cuts wreck council budgets.
In England local authorities have faced a reduction to core funding from the government of nearly £16 billion over the preceding decade. Dozens of local authorities reported last year that they faced financial collapse.
These cuts have a drastic impact on the most vulnerable people.
“Austerity has devastated social care,” said Gordon. “For instance, there were something like 750,000 meals on wheels delivered in 2010 that just don’t happen now.”
A lack of early-intervention community care forces more people into lengthy hospital stays.
Many then stay in hospital longer than medically necessary because they don’t have appropriate care packages either in their own homes or residential facilities.
The privatised system makes it harder to implement system-wide practices for major incidents, such as pandemics, or even accurately record death rates.
Jane Lethbridge from the Centre for Research in Employment and Work explained how this system has led to care home deaths being obscured.
“The government is not directly responsible for how services are delivered—how services fit into wider systems of accountability and how they are measured and assessed,” she said.
“The invisibility of care home deaths and the health and safety of care workers shows that social care services can no longer be dependent on for-profit companies.”
Gordon called for “universal social care funded through progressive taxation and available to all”.
All care services should be taken back in house by local government. They should be run on the basis of what benefits workers and users, not what makes profit for fat cats.
Care workers get poverty pay
Some two in three care workers in the private sector earn below the Living Wage
Up to 160,000 care workers are paid less than the legal minimum of the National Living Wage because they are not paid for all the hours they work.
Care workers are three times more likely than other workers to be employed through agencies
And 99 percent of frontline care workers say they still haven’t been tested for coronavirus.
Green paper gone missing
What’s the government’s plan for sorting out the adult social care mess?
In March 2017, then-prime minister Theresa May announced that a government Green Paper setting out its strategy, would arrive that summer.
This pledge was reiterated in the Tories’ general election campaign in 2017.
Almost three years later, the Green Paper hasn’t appeared. The Tories said last September that it would be published “in due course”—with no revised deadline.
Labour plans are limited
The Labour Party announced at its conference last September that it wanted a “National Care Service”.
It pledged free personal care and more funding for the sector.
But it only agreed to “support authorities to directly provide, rather than outsource, care”.
Even under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the party fell short of calling for care services to be renationalised.