Ministers have been unable to answer key questions on how they plan to cope with the impact of coronavirus on social care, despite announcing £5 billion in emergency funding for public services.
The failure to answer questions about the impact of the virus on the social care workforce came days after Disability Rights UK warned that disabled people must not be seen as “inevitable cannon fodder in the face of COVID-19” when those with underlying health conditions appeared to be “bearing the brunt of the worst effects of this illness”.
By noon today (Thursday), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had still not published promised guidance for the care sector.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak did use yesterday’s budget to announce an initial £5 billion in funding that he said would be used to support the NHS; to prepare and protect other public services; and to fund “local authority actions to support social care services and vulnerable people”.
He promised that “whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus, it will get”, but made no such pledge in relation to social care.
It came as the World Health Organization declared yesterday (Wednesday) that COVID-19 was now “a pandemic”, with 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries.
Concerns at DHSC’s failure to publish the guidance are likely to mount after Labour’s shadow social care minister, Barbara Keeley, failed to secure answers from ministers on their plans to support the social care sector.
Keeley had asked what steps the government was taking to support social care providers in managing the effects of COVID-19 on service-users.
But care minister Helen Whately told Keeley that it would “not be possible to answer this question within the usual time period” and that an answer “will be provided as soon as it is available”.
She gave the same answer to a question from Keeley on the impact of COVID-19 on the social care workforce.
When Keeley asked health and social care secretary Matt Hancock about the impact on the care workforce when large numbers of staff were likely to have to “self-isolate” because of the virus, she was told it was something the department was “considering and working on”.
Hancock (pictured, right) published DHSC’s action plan on dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak last week, but it focuses on the NHS and says almost nothing about social care.
Hancock did announce this week that volunteers in the health and care system would be given “additional employment safeguards so they can leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic” and not risk losing their jobs.
Under these proposed measures – to be included in an upcoming COVID-19 emergency bill – the government will ensure the jobs of skilled, experienced or qualified volunteers are protected for up to four weeks to allow it to “shore up resilience across the health and social care systems”.
The Local Government Association (LGA) said this week that councils had “plans in place for every possible scenario” but expressed concern about the government’s response on social care.
Before yesterday’s budget, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, chair of LGA’s community wellbeing board, warned that public heath services had seen funding reduced by £700 million in real terms over the past five years and were “still in the dark about the amount of funding they will have from April”.
Following the budget, he welcomed the £5 billion emergency fund announced by the chancellor, but he said that a widespread coronavirus epidemic across the country “would inevitably have a huge impact on an already-stretched adult social care system”.
He said: “It is clear that local government needs the same commitment the NHS has received from the chancellor today, that it will get any immediate financial support it needs to help adult social care services keep vulnerable residents safe and reduce pressure on the NHS.”
Meanwhile, work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said that claimants of out-of-work benefits would not be sanctioned if they failed to attend jobcentres because they had had to self-isolate – as long as they informed their work coach in advance – because “work coaches can exercise discretion”.
But Buckinghamshire Disability Service (BuDS) said Coffey’s assurance was “far too weak”.
BuDS said: “DWP should be giving clear commitments that no-one who is self-isolating (or who is ill) should be expected to break isolation to meet any DWP requirements.
“This weak, equivocal, statement does not reassure people claiming benefits and doesn’t give them the confidence they need to decide what to do.”
Coffey also told Labour’s Debbie Abrahams that disabled claimants who failed to attend a work capability assessment because of COVID-19 “will not be penalised for doing so” if they “do the right thing”.
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