The government will give English councils £120m to boost staffing levels in social care services as the new variant drives spiralling absence rates in care homes and community-based provision.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the workforce capacity fund, available later this month, would help councils provide additional care staff for services where shortages arise, support administrative tasks so experienced and skilled staff can focus on providing care and help existing staff take on additional hours if they wish with overtime payments.
The news follows mounting concerns about the capacity of social care services, amid substantial demand from the NHS for discharge provision, to reduce numbers in hospitals, and providers seeing increasing numbers of staff go off sick or have to self-isolate.
Alongside the announcement, the government said that it had ditched controversial plans to ban staff movement between homes, following a consultation, saying the sector had called for increased staffing rather than regulation to help control infections.
‘Acute challenges – right here, right now’
The funding was welcomed by third-sector provider umbrella body National Care Forum, which reported said earlier this month that some members had reported staff absence rates of 35%.
Executive director Vic Rayner said it was positive that the government had responded to the extreme staffing pressures facing social care, but said the funding “must be subject to continuous review”.
She added: “For some providers this will mean paying existing staff to work additional hours, to overstaff services to cope with short notice absences, and to reward and support those who have been at the frontline of this pandemic, without relief, for the last 10 months.
“In addition, the funding must be available to enable rapid recruitment at a local level which uses the best of the practices developed during this pandemic, utilising technology, rapid training and fast track DBS.”
She added: “The acute challenges we are seeing in hospitals across the country are also happening in social care – right here, right now.”
Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) president James Bullion said he welcomed the funding announcement but highlighted the need for further support for family carers and longer-term reform.
However, UNISON general secretary elect Christina McAnea warned that “additional money here and there won’t address the massive weaknesses at the heart of the sector”, including that it was “fragmented…underfunded and understaffed”.
She added: “The government must be true to its word and deliver a long-term plan for social care that puts it on a par with the NHS.”
Proposal to ban care staff movement ditched
Provider bodies also welcomed the DHSC’s decision to its plan to prevent Care Quality Commission-registered care homes from using staff to deliver personal or nursing care who had delivered such care in any other regulated health or social care setting in the previous 14 days.
Rayner said “It was an ill-thought-through policy proposal, which targeted low paid care workers and created high level of concerns that people would be required to choose between health and care settings at a time when their skills and expertise were desperately needed.
“Care homes have been doing everything possible to reduce staff movement, and the prospect of regulatory enforcement was extremely unhelpful in a sector stretched to near breaking point.”
Care England chief executive Martin Green said it was pleased that the government had listened to the sector regarding its “deep concerns” about banning staff movement.
Green said Care England wanted to work with the DHSC to ensure that the workforce capacity fund delivers to the front line and is “suitably flexible” to reflect the crisis, whereby providers are struggling with staff illness and absenteeism in the same way as their colleagues in the NHS.
“Staff are our most precious resource and we want to do all that we can to support them especially in these incredibly difficult times,” he added
£149m boost for testing
The workforce capacity fund follows the announcement last month of a £149m pot to help providers roll out rapid testing – using lateral flow devices – to deliver additional testing for staff and visiting professionals and loved-ones.
Councils will be required to pass on 80% of the funding to care homes on a per beds basis, with 20% used at the local authorities’ discretion to support their local care sector in delivering additional lateral flow device testing. The DHSC said the money would pay for care home providers to set up safe testing areas, provide staff training and contribute towards staff time spent on administering and receiving the tests.
Like the workforce capacity fund, the adult social care rapid testing fund will be paid to councils later this month.
Both are separate to the existing infection control fund – worth £1.15bn so far – which is designed to help care homes in particular pay staff to self-isolate and bring in more workforce capacity to minimise movement between homes.