Care sector hit by staff absence rates up to 50% as third wave of coronavirus intensifies

‘If people cannot be supported to leave hospital, whether that is by moving into a care home or having care at home, then the whole system will fail,’ warns National Care Forum

Samuel Lovett
Saturday 09 January 2021 17:29 GMT
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Care providers in the UK are reporting staff absence rates of up to 50 per cent, amid concern of “mounting pressure” across the social care sector as the third coronavirus wave continues to intensify.

The National Care Forum (NCF), which represents more than 130 organisations, called on the government to take “heed of this early warning signal” and provide additional resources for care services that have become increasingly stretched over winter.

In a survey conducted last week, the NCF found that some providers were missing between 11 and 50 per cent of their workforce. Absences were driven by a combination of Covid-19 infections, instructions to self-isolate, shielding and childcare responsibilities.

In November of last year, the average staff absence rate across the social care sector stood at 7 per cent.

Absences were reported by services throughout the UK and have largely affected frontline care workers and ancillary support staff in nursing homes, the NCF added.

In the worst-case scenarios, providers have been forced to offer extra overtime shifts to their remaining staff members, turn to agency workers and even refuse admissions and hospital referrals.

The NCF’s findings come as new data from Public Health England showed that coronavirus outbreaks more than doubled in a fortnight over the new year period.

There were 503 reports of outbreaks in English care homes in the week up to 3 January – up from 236 two weeks prior, an increase of more than 113 per cent.

A care home outbreak is classed as two or more confirmed cases.

Despite the growing prevalence of Covid-19 in the social care sector, which was devastated during the first peak of the pandemic, only one in 10 care home residents and 14 per cent of staff have been vaccinated so far, according to the latest figures.

Vic Rayner, executive director of the NCF, warned that the growing levels of staff absences were placing the system under increasing strain.

“Staff in care services have been at the very front line of this battle against Covid-19 for over 11 months, and are shattered both physically and emotionally,” she said.

“While the recent focus has been on the pressure being experienced by hospitals and the NHS, this is a red flag that pressure is mounting in the social care sector too.

“We must pay close attention to this as social care is integral to the overall system. If people cannot be supported to leave hospital, whether that is by moving into a care home or having care at home, then the whole system will fail.

“NHS saves lives – but so does social care – and it must be properly supported to ensure that it can play its vital role in making the whole system work for communities.”

The Department of Health and Social Care intends to have offered vaccines to all care home residents in the UK by the end of January.

However, the National Care Association (NCA) said the delays in rolling out the vaccine throughout the sector “were not good enough”.

“If we don’t do this, we are failing the vulnerable citizens in this country who are in care settings, and this will be the failure of the government to safeguard the people who are the most vulnerable,” said Nadra Ahmed, chair of the NCA.

More than 20,000 care home residents died during the first wave of the pandemic. In an attempt to free up hospital capacity, some patients were discharged into residential homes without taking a test – a policy that lasted until 15 April and is thought to culminated in thousands of deaths.

Ms Rayner urged the government to take action in supporting the social care sector amid the ongoing rise in infections and outbreaks, before it becomes too late.

“Additional capacity needs to be resourced and built into care services to allow for full staffing to be available in the light of short-term absences of the nature that services are seeing during this period of exceptionally high community transmission.

“Vaccination for care workers must be delivered at pace, and we need prioritised turnaround of testing from care homes.

“Every day that we turn a blind eye to the challenges facing social care, our chances of addressing the equally pressing challenges in healthcare are diminished. The time for action is now.”

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