Whistle-stop care still puts vulnerable at risk

Most councils force staff to cut short the time spent with elderly people. Emily Dugan reports

Three-quarters of Britain's councils are still giving elderly and vulnerable people controversial "whistle-stop" home visits which the Government previously branded inhumane.

Speeded-up 15-minute care visits continue to be used by a majority of councils, figures given exclusively to The Independent on Sunday show. Experts said that the Government's failure to bring an end to the "cruel" practice was evidence that the social care system was "in crisis".

According to research by the union Unison, the fleeting time slots mean staff often have to leave patients before completing vital tasks, such as changing dressings, and have no time to reassure or chat to vulnerable people.

The Government's own White Paper last July said such brief care visits "risk stripping people of their dignity and jeopardising their human rights". Despite this, the figures suggest little has been done to halt them.

Labour's health spokesman, Andy Burnham, said: "On David Cameron's watch, council social care budgets have been cut to the bone. Older and disabled people are no longer getting the support they need to cope with everyday tasks. Whistle-stop visits are barely enough time to make a cup of tea, let alone exchange a meaningful word. We will never get the standards of care we need while social care remains a malnourished, minimum-wage business."

Freedom of Information requests by Unison show that 73 per cent of councils in England, Wales and Scotland still commission 15-minute care visits. A total of 160 councils responded. They were most commonly used in Scotland, where 88 per cent of councils commission them. In Wales it is 83 per cent, and 69 per cent in England.

Unison's Heather Wakefield said: "Our home-care system is in crisis. Every day, elderly and vulnerable people suffer because they are not getting the care they need. Fifteen-minute visits exemplify the inadequacy of the current care-on-the-cheap system. The Government has acknowledged the damage the visits can do, but it has failed to stop their use. In fact, drastic cuts to council budgets have only made matters worse. It is time to act and ban their use across the UK, and for the Government to end the scandal of the elderly care crisis in this country."

Care workers said they were "deeply concerned" they did not have time to talk to people in their care. The Time to Care report said this was especially worrying given that home carers can be the only source of social contact in an elderly person's day. One carer told researchers: "Fifteen-minute slots should be done away with – you cannot give any level of care in 15 minutes. Some of these people don't have any family and a care worker is the only person they see, but you have to practically run in and run out again."

Care workers say it is impossible to carry out the tasks that often have to be completed in 15 minutes – feeding, bathing, administering medicines and getting people up or into bed. People with dementia are said to find the rush of such a short visit particularly distressing. Staff who want to provide a better service and choose to stay beyond the allotted 15 minutes end up underpaid for their services and accused of not performing their job adequately. Though carers reported being told by their employers to leave once the 15 minutes were up, many choose not to.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of Independent Age, said: "We sympathise with councils working with reduced budgets, but options that inevitably sacrifice dignity and quality are clearly unacceptable."

Michelle Mitchell, Age UK director general, said: "This confirms once again that older people are being reduced to a tick-box list of tasks to be completed as quickly as possible. The funding pressures which result in tight visits have a devastating effect on the older people relying on these services"

A Department of Health spokesman said: "The Government is doing its part with once-in-a-generation changes to social care laws. But more needs to be done. We are also looking at whether the Chief Inspector should have a role in assuring that councils are performing their commissioning role effectively."

Case study: ‘In 15 minutes you can’t get to know someone, or make sure they’re OK ... the care firms don’t care, they get the profits’

Carole Brealey, 54 Carer, from Nottingham

"Fifteen minutes is a ridiculous amount of time to look after someone. You have to rush in and rush out and do all the paperwork, so you end up with about five minutes to do whatever is necessary. You can be rushed on a half-hour call, let alone a 15-minute one.

"I worked for a major care company until last year. I'd never do it again because the calls are so impersonal. I'm still a carer but I work for myself now and my shortest calls are 45 minutes.

I was on £6.40 an hour, so I'd get paid £1.60 for a 15-minute call that, in practice, could take up to an hour. It's just a bad service. If you've only got a couple of minutes after your paperwork you can't get to know someone, talk to them or make sure they're OK. It's ridiculous.

"The care companies don't care – they get all the profits. They would send you at a time that wasn't good for the patient and say 'go, whether they like it or not'."

'In 15 minutes you can't get to know someone, or make sure they're OK ... the care firms don't care, they get the profits'

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