Care staff face a “grim, difficult and relentless” situation as the Omicron variant of Covid-19 deepens pre-existing staffing shortages.
Vacancies across the sector rose from 9.2% to 9.4%, from November to December, up from 6.1% in May, while the number of posts filled in services fell to 3.7% below March 2021 levels, shows data released today by Skills for Care.
Meanwhile a survey by the National Care Forum showed providers faced an average vacancy rate of 18% in an addition to a 14% average absence rate last week.
Almost all (97%) of the respondents, who between them employ 98,000 staff, said remaining staff were working extra shifts, 81% were using more agency staff while 66% said they were working with lower staff levels than planned.
On the back of the NCF survey, chief executive Vic Rayner said: “It is unacceptable that yet again, nearly 2 years on from the start of the pandemic, we continue to see enormous pressures in the care and support sector, this time compounded by the impact of Omicron.
‘Grim, difficult and relentless’
“Staff shortages are excessively high and everything must be done to support providers to operate safe and quality services, so that people have access to the care and support they need, when they need it.”
She added: “Those working on the frontline describe the situation today as ‘grim, difficult and relentless’. This must stop.”
Care providers on their staffing situation
“The situation changes by the shift let alone by the day. It is firefighting every day and prioritising delivery of care over other responsibilities.”
“We have had to have contingency plans in place asking families and volunteers to help out. Also, our directors and senior managers are on standby and have covered waking night shifts.”
“Morale is low; staff are tired and it doesn’t feel like there is light at the end of tunnel. We are concerned about the resilience of staff at this time.”
The staffing gaps were feeding through into unmet need for care, echoing previous research by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the survey of not-for-profit care providers found.
Two-thirds of home care respondents said they had refused new requests for care, while 21% said they had handed back packages of care. Meanwhile, 43% of care home respondents said they had closed their home to new admissions.
Funding boost and immigration change
In response to the figures, the Department of Health and Social Care pointed to its provision of £462.5m to tackle adult social care staffing pressures through the winter.
A spokesperson also highlighted its decision to extend its health and care visa to care workers, making it easier for employers to recruit eligible overseas staff.
This eligibility has been widened after ministers accepted recommendations from the Migration Advisory Committee to place care staff on the shortage occupation list, a move sector bodies had long called for. This means employers with a sponsorship licence can recruit care staff from abroad so long as they will be earning £20,480 or more – equivalent to £10.10 an hour. However, the average wage in the independent sector, as of March 2021, was £9.01 an hour.
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Care staff are working incredibly hard and we are doing everything we can to support them including with a £462.5 million recruitment fund, expanding the Health and Care Visa scheme and our ‘Made with Care’ recruitment campaign.
“More than 50 million PCR and 142 million LFD kits have been delivered to care homes and we have invested a further £478 million to support safe and timely hospital discharges to get patients into the best place for their care and support to continue.”
The latter figure refers to funding from September 2021 to March 2022 for the hospital discharge scheme, which funds up to six weeks’ social care for people discharged from hospital who need it.
Variable access to funding and tests
While most providers surveyed by NCF had recieved some money from the government’s workforce recruitment and retention funds, 12% said they had not received anything from the first tranche announced in October and 32% had had nothing from the second, unveiled in December.
Providers also reported problems accessing Covid tests and results, with 32% unable to access lateral flow tests and 81% facing delays in obtaining the results of PCR tests.
Meanwhile, the Skills for Care data showed that the number of care worker posts had fallen by 5% since March 2021 among organisations that had supplied data, with a 6.1% drop in relation to these posts in care homes.
Vacancies remain highest in domiciliary care, rising from 12% to 12.6% from November to December 2021, up from 8.4% in April. In relation to particular roles, the biggest gaps remained among registered nurses, with a vacancy rate of 17.4%.