The social care workforce has shrunk for the first time in nearly a decade despite rising demand and congested hospital beds fueled by a shortage of care places.
England is expected to need nearly 500,000 more care workers by the middle of the next decade, but last year there was a net drop in the workforce of 50,000, leaving around 165,000 vacancies, according to new figures from Skills for Care.
Care experts said the crisis revealed the ‘absolute crisis’ in the face of a system still reeling from the impact of Covid and Brexit. A £500million workforce fund set up by the government last month has been called a ‘drop in the ocean’ and councils are calling for £3billion to be pumped into better wages and recruitments.
“People’s lives and dignity are at risk,” said Helen Wildbore, director of the Relatives & Residents Association. “The impact of this is being felt on people who are truly vulnerable and who find themselves without the care and support they need.”
Skills for Care found that the quality of care declined with fewer staff.
Chronically low wages are a key issue, with one in five care home workers – most of whom are women and disproportionately black – estimated to be in poverty, according to a separate study by the Health Foundation think tank on earnings data even before the cost of living crisis hit.
Council bosses, who pay some or all of the costs for almost half of care home residents, described the poverty figures as ‘incredibly disturbing’ and said low wages were affecting the ability of beneficiaries of care to live an equal life.
The average hourly wage for caregivers, £9.50, is currently £1 less than that of entry-level NHS health assistants. This week, jobs are available in Amazon warehouses for people with no previous experience who pay £11.45 an hour for a day shift, rising to £22.90 an hour overtime. Nearly a quarter of care jobs are under precarious zero-hour contracts, compared to 3% in the population as a whole.
Meanwhile, hospitals are having to keep patients on wards longer than necessary as there are not enough care beds and home care packages available, slowing down the provision of other medical treatment.
“Our society needs a step change in the way it values social care and the wonderful people who provide it,” said Oonagh Smyth, chief executive of Skills for Care. “We need to talk more about how social services are rewarding to attract more people, and we need to make it easier for people who enjoy working in social services to stay by improving general conditions and investing in their career development. ”
As life expectancy increases, the population with dementia – currently 900,000 – is expected to reach 1.6 million by 2040. Staff shortages are also expected to worsen as more than one in four social workers is 55 years of age or older and approaching retirement.
Simon Bottery, social care expert at think tank Kings Fund, said the staffing data revealed the “absolute crisis” of the system. The Kings Fund recently found that nine of the 10 largest supermarkets pay more than the average social worker receives.
“If there aren’t enough caregivers, people are left without help with basic tasks like washing and dressing and they’re stuck in hospital because they can’t go home.” , did he declare.
Hugh Alderwick, director of policy at the Health Foundation, said many social workers “cannot afford enough food, shelter, clothing and other essentials”.
Rachel Harrison, national officer of the GMB union, which represents care workers, said: ‘Without the dedication of our care workers the whole house of cards will collapse. She called for a minimum wage of £15 an hour for carers.
A government spokesperson cited its £500million fund ‘to support community discharge and strengthen the workforce this winter, in addition to record funding to support our plan ten-year”.
“Tens of thousands of additional staff have also joined since we added social workers to the health and care worker visa and shortage occupations list,” they added. “The government is supporting recruitment at home and abroad – with a £15m international recruitment fund and a new national campaign launching soon.”