Mike Forster, Socialist Alternative Political Committee
The Covid crisis gripping the country is being played out across care homes as it is estimated that hundreds have already died from confirmed or suspected Coronavirus. The industry body, Care England, estimates the figure to be closer to 1,000 since the majority of deaths are not being recorded as Covid related and are not being counted as part of the official government daily death toll. They argue that the government is deliberately underestimating the impact of the virus on the most frail and elderly in society.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the virus is now active in half of the country’ care settings. The government disputes these figures, claiming it is only 9%! Labour MP Peter Kyle is correct when he claims that the government is sweeping the deaths of older people in our homes under the carpet. Once the virus takes a grip in these settings, it is rapidly infecting residents who are the most vulnerable. One home reported 17 deaths in one week! The situation will only get a lot worse. Care staff are terrified to speak out but those brave enough to speak to their union have reported a chronic lack of basic equipment to deal with the virus, with one wearing a bag over her head for protection!
18 months ago, my mother was admitted to residential care as a result of dementia and failing mobility. The experience has totally opened my eyes. I have so much respect and admiration for the carers who always go above and beyond and get paid nowhere near enough for all the work they have to do, starting at 8am and clocking off at 8pm. And now they are putting their lives and those of their families on the line every day to look after our loved ones. I know that if the virus gets in there, it will very quickly infect so many people.
Before the Covid crisis broke, the social care system was on its knees as a direct result of privatisation, cuts and closures. The scandalous death toll was a disaster waiting to happen and it will now only get worse. Staff are faced with a chronic shortage of PPE and yet when there are outbreaks of the virus, they still have to care for their residents. The same is true of those who are visiting the elderly in their own homes whose only contact with the outside world will be the home carers themselves, a lot of whom also report they have no protective equipment.
Social Care is divided into two main sectors: Residential and home care. Home care is largely, but not wholly, subsidised by local authorities. However, most of it is now provided by the private sector, which is heavily subsidised by council grants. 94% of residential care is now provided by the private sector with 465,000 of the most vulnerable living in supported accommodation. The entire sector has been ravaged by austerity cuts over the last ten years with at least £7 billion being cut from council budgets. This has meant that up to 1.5 million elderly people are now not getting the support and help they need.
The private sector providers of residential care have been extracting profits from this sector for over 20 years. However, a recent report undertaken by the Centre for Health and Public Interest (CHPI) found that the total income for the private sector is around £15 billion, but care home operators are making up to £1.5 billion a year in profits, which include fees to directors and an array of other questionable financial arrangements. Many of the firms that provide most of the UK’s care home beds are owned or backed by hedge funds, while some of the biggest are based in overseas tax havens.
According the to the CHPI, some of the largest care home businesses are extracting a lot of profit disguised as rent and loan repayment costs, which has made it hard for local authorities and individuals to know how much extra funding the industry actually needs and how financially sustainable it really is. Yet many companies are now starting to walk away from the sector or going into insolvency, such as the Four Seasons Company a few years ago. 380 care homes have collapsed since 2010 and councils and families are left with having to pick up the pieces and find new accommodation for the elderly. Many of these companies are now focusing on what they call the ‘high end’ sector, charging £2,000 a week for the most well off, prompting the Care Quality Commission to report that “the social care system is being created for the rich, and nobody is coming along to replace those homes which have closed”.
The same is true of the home care system where the CQC has found that just over half the companies ‘require improvement’, yet the top five providers made an annual profit of £700 million. The whole system is staffed by mainly women workers who work for the minimum wage, or even less! One company, Seymore, was taken to court for not paying the minimum wage to its workers. These are the workers who, just 2 months ago, were described by Priti Patel as ‘unskilled’ and who are now described as ‘heroes and heroines’ for the work they are having to do.
Three weeks ago, I had to kiss my mum goodbye knowing we wouldn’t meet up again until the lockdown is lifted. Every day, I dread the phone ringing. Millions of families, the elderly and carers are going through the same experience every day. Life remains on hold. But with the right equipment and safety precautions it could all be very different. Every home and home care provider should have as a priority:
· compulsory daily testing
· the correct ready supply of PPE
· sufficient funding to ensure there is a full complement of staff
At the moment, this is just not happening so the disaster will unfold before our eyes and yet again this government will have blood on its hands.
This crisis has exposed a care sector and NHS which is drastically underfunded. We must demand:
· The immediate transfer of home and residential care back to the public sector
· Proper public funding to end the scandal of the vulnerable and sick being ripped of by the private sector
· A decent living wage for all carers
· Free care for all those assessed of being in need at the point of delivery