Samantha was due to finish her early shift on Christmas Day at 3pm. At 9pm, she was still at the care home.
“My family were at home waiting to eat Christmas lunch, but I couldn’t leave,” she says.
“How could I? I knew there just wouldn’t be enough staff. When I eventually got home, I was in tears.”
What kept her there was an incident from a few days earlier.
“I was in the lounge with residents, none of whom can be left alone because of risk of falls,” she says.
“One lady wanted to go to the toilet, but she needs two people’s support, so I couldn’t take her until staff were free. We were so short-staffed, she ended up soiling herself and she was crying her eyes out. It was heartbreaking.
“I thought, ‘we can’t even do the basics, why am I even here?’”
Speaking from home in Greater Manchester, Samantha (not her real name) has spent five days in isolation and is waiting for a PCR test result to come back after her husband and son tested positive.
“So now I can’t work anyway,” she says. “Me and 28 other staff.”
In Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Sue Cawthray is looking at her rota.
Eleven of her 100 staff are currently off with Covid, and she says there are more than 1,000 vacancies for care staff just in her local area.
Nationally, there was a shortage of 120,000 workers in adult social care even before 60,000 workers were sacked in November for refusing to have Covid vaccinations.
Now Omicron is isolating tens of thousands more.
“Things are pretty grim to be honest,” Sue, the CEO of Harrogate Neighbours, a Yorkshire-based care provider, says.
“We have more staff off now than at any other time during the pandemic.”
Social care was failed in the first wave of the pandemic with fatal consequences. Now, as we approach the second anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic, there is still no “protective ring” or indeed any apparent strategy for social care.
“I think we’re at an absolute crisis point, I really do,” Sue says. “It’s ridiculous that we’re still in this mess another year on. How is this possible?”
Mike Padgham, chair of the Independent Care Group, which represents providers in York and North Yorkshire, says 20% of staff are sick or isolating.
“I don’t want to frighten people, but what happens when more go off?” he says. “We’re not like restaurants, we can’t just close. The NHS can’t take people. What will happen? I’ve never known it so threadbare.”
Mike says he has lost count of the times he wrote to the former Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, and has now written twice to his successor Sajid Javid, warning of the “perfect storm” to come.
“I have been calling for months for volunteers to be checked and trained up to fill these gaps,” he says. “If we are on a war-footing, former healthcare professionals could be trained to so some of the personal care, and other types of volunteers could be answering the phones and making cups of tea to free up our staff. I’ve never had a reply from either Secretary of State. Yet if social care fails, the NHS falls over.”
A shortage of social care staff means fewer people discharged from hospital, which in turn is feeding a beds crisis leading all the way back to A&E.
Even so he’s seen years of council cuts, Brexit and compulsory vaccination decimate the workforce. The biggest issue, he says, is pay and conditions that should be on a par with the NHS to attract and retain staff.
“Social care has been promised new money by Government, but it’s not coming for three years and goes to the NHS first.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Protecting care staff and people who use social care services continues to be a priority, especially as cases surge and Omicron spreads rapidly across the country.
“The social care workforce, independent providers, charities and local authorities have been throughout the pandemic, continuing to deliver high quality care under the most challenging circumstances.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve made almost £2.4billion in specific funding available for adult social care and this week we announced an extra £60million to keep people in care homes safe over January.’’
Yet, as Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Social care was already in the grip of a staffing crisis, and the Omicron variant has made a bad situation desperate.”
Some £8billion has been cut from social care budgets since 2010, starting with George Osborne’s austerity council cuts. Then Brexit saw swathes of the workforce return to the EU.
The Government has made visa changes to encourage these workers back. But this change, announced hurriedly on Christmas Eve when the Government hoped Brexiteers weren’t looking, will take months to see results.
A badly mismanaged compulsory vaccine edict saw even more staff depart. No wonder half of England’s councils have had to deal with care homes closing in the past six months.
A Unite the Union officer told us: “The two weeks before Christmas were awful. We had more than 30 usual staff off with Covid, excessive workloads for remaining staff, with travel times being cut to squeeze more in, staff forced to do overtime. I raised that we were no longer working safely and an already stressed-out workforce was now burnt-out, which will only lead to mistakes and accidents due to staff being forced to rush between calls.”
In Manchester, Samantha, a Unison, member, says her care home was redesigned to take people from hospital.
“We’re under huge pressure to take people even though we don’t have the staff,” she says. “It’s all such a mess. We need a National Care Service.”
Mike Padgham agrees.
“We need someone to take on this issue bravely, like Nye Bevan did in ’48. We need radical change.”
Back in Harrogate and groundhog day begins again.
“We have had two positive cases and are closed to visitors at the moment, which isn’t good for anyone,” Sue says. “I just had to tell one of our 91-year-old residents that their daughter can’t visit. It’s upsetting for everyone. Staff are exhausted. They’re just worn out.”