The government has responded to calls from social care leaders by providing £546m to help providers control the spread of coronavirus during the winter.
The extension of the ring-fenced infection control fund, like the £600m provided to date through the mechanism, is targeted at care homes, to enable them to pay staff who have to self-isolate and hire more workers to prevent them from having to move between homes. The money is channelled through councils.
The news follows demands from providers for the fund to be extended beyond its 30 September expiry date, with National Care Forum executive director Vic Rayner warning this week that ministers “cannot delay a day longer” in doing so to enable organisations to make staffing plans for October that minimised the spread of the virus.
“This critical funding has been a lifeline for the National Care Forum (NCF) members across the country providing them with vital resources to minimise the movement of staff,” she said. “It has, amongst other things, included the funding to provide staff with their full salary whilst self-isolating for 14 days, and to enable the exclusive use of agency and specialist staff who would otherwise move between services.”
Risk of providers going into red
Today’s announcement also follows warnings to MPs last week from Association of Directors of Adult Social Services president James Bullion that most care providers risked going into the red this winter without more government cash to manage the extra costs and lost income from Covid-19.
While care home leaders called for an extension to the infection control fund, it has been criticised by ADASS for its narrow focus on staffing costs – as opposed to purchasing personal protective equipment, for example – and for placing burdensome reporting and accounting mechanisms on councils and providers to access the cash.
The conditions for accessing the latest tranche of the fund are likely to be published before the end of the week.
Lack of home care focus
Responding to the announcement, UNISON assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said it was “the least that could be expected” but warned that the money was “simply not getting through to the care staff who need it”.
She said many were having to rely on statutory sick pay when self-isolating, rather than being paid in full: “Many are expected to get by on just £95 a week if they need to stay off work, when they deserve to be paid in full. Ministers must get tough with care employers.
McAnea also criticised the fund’s focus on care homes rather than home care – with a maximum of 25% of the first tranch of funding available to support infection control by domiciliary providers.
“But the focus is still on care homes. Many care workers are also out in the community going from home to home. They and the people for whom their visits are essential have been given barely a thought.”
The infection control funding – now £1.15bn – is addition to £3.7bn in un-ringfenced resource to support councils manage increased costs and lost income from Covid-19. Of the first £3.2bn of this funding, an estimated £1.3bn was spent on adult social care.
The government has also pledged to cover the majority of councils’ losses from fees and charges – though not commercial income – as a result of reductions in the services they have been able to provide during the pandemic. In addition, the forthcoming spending review, expected in November, will include plans to compensate authorities for some of their losses from council tax and business rates in 2020-21.
However, speaking alongside Bullion last week in evidence to the House of Commons health and social care committee, Local Government Association deputy chief executive Sarah Pickup said this left a £2bn deficit in town hall coffers due to the impact of Covid-19.
The infection control fund extension comes ahead of the publication of a winter plan for social care and an accompanying report by the Social Care Sector Covid-19 Support Taskforce, set up in June to help manage the spread of infection within the sector.
The government is also due to make an announcement setting out how access to coronavirus tests should be prioritised amid widespread problems across the country, including in relation to care homes.
Ministers had announced in July that by the end of that month all homes for people aged over 65 and those with dementia would be able to have all staff tested weekly and all residents monthly, with the same system in place for homes for working-age adults by the end of August.
However, the rollout was delayed with insufficient testing kits being supplied to care homes. In a letter to provider and council leaders last week, the Department of Health and Social Care director of adult social care delivery Stuart Miller admitted that “rollout of the repeat testing programme for care homes was unfortunately delayed”.
But he added: “We recognise that rollout of the repeat testing programme for care homes was unfortunately delayed. However, tests have now been delivered to all care homes for older people who registered for regular testing and the portal is now also open for care homes for working age adults to register for repeat testing. At present, we have no significant backlog and are able to send out test kits within several days of orders being placed.”