Boris on Care: wrong words, right target

The corporate voice of the care sector is up in arms about the PM’s comments on care. Of course, his remarks about care homes, not following procedures were sly and clumsy, but he is right that the care sector should shoulder some of the blame for the virtual decimation of their aged residents.

Clap for carers was a touching display of community empathy for people in the front line but neither this outpouring nor the tragic deaths of care home staff should make the care sector itself exempt from criticism in the forthcoming debate on social care reform.

Just before this crisis started almost 17% of care homes were deemed by the Care Quality Commission as “Requiring Improvement” or “Inadequate”. This means that many thousands of our frailest citizens were already in homes with issues like understaffing, poor infection control and compromised dignity.

The seeds of Covid-19 landed on what was already fertile ground for disaster. It is this ground that now needs an honest exploration.

Among the many lines of enquiry is the issue of pay for frontline care workers, but also the values, incentives and rewards at play further up the management chain. Calls for a better funding settlement for the sector will not land well with policy-makers when they come from care sector leaders earning as much as £400,000 a year while their care assistants earn as little as £8.72 an hour (around £15,000 a year full-time). Why did they not lead by example and peg their own pay at six times that of the lowest paid in the sector, i.e. in the region of £90,000?

The broader challenge is to find a sustainable funding settlement that ensures dignity and protection to the most vulnerable. Back in 2017, Theresa May said that care was close to collapse and was widely mocked. All parties reached for cheap points about a “Dementia tax”. Instead of a debate about care funding, misinformation about people selling their homes for care was gleefully spread. It is a tragedy that campaigning points were put before solutions. How much more prepared for the current pandemic might we have been had we had a more mature and edifying debate three years ago?

Nye Bevan said that the Secretary of State for Health should hear a dropped bedpan echoing across Whitehall. Cries for social care reform are echoing more loudly around Whitehall now, but it is easy to blame the government for everything. We have all let our elderly down with the situation we have allowed to grow up.

* Ruth Bright has been a councillor in Southwark and Parliamentary Candidate for Hampshire East