Why some of the answers to the social care staffing crisis lie locally

Oona Goldsworthy, 11 January 2022

Back in the autumn the Chief Executive of the Care Quality Commission warned about "a tsunami… of people without the care they need this winter unless staff shortages are tackled”. Fast forward three months and here we are in the grip of winter combined with the Omicron coronavirus surge. Sector leaders are reporting that staff shortages across all services are the worst they have ever known. Various factors including pay, shifts, illness, wellbeing, burnout, family commitments and the impact of Brexit, mean that we are seeing a significant shortfall in the number of staff needed. We are relying heavily on agency cover, the cost of which has increased significantly and this is pushing already tight budgets to breaking point.

We’re a resilient lot, us social care leaders. But in conversation with my peers I detect an element of despair. We have all seen those images of ambulances queuing at A&E and our local hospital in North Bristol currently has one quarter of all its beds occupied by medically fit people waiting for social care placements. Our hands are tied however, as without staff we can’t open all our care home and supported housing placements, or provide care at home at the levels needed.

This doesn't mean that we are sitting back in resignation. Far from it. We are literally trying everything. At an organisational level we have increased pay rates so that everyone is paid more than the National Living Wage and we have got as close to the Real Living Wage as we can. We have also invested in training, teamed up with our local universities and further education college to provide work placements, paid retention and recruitment bonuses, partnered with local community organisations including refugee charities and even brought electric bikes to support our home care colleagues.

But we know we don’t hold the answer alone, and importantly we cannot wait for solutions from the Government. So taking inspiration from Bristol’s ‘One City’ response to the pandemic 21 months ago, in mid-December leaders from across health, social care, key businesses, the voluntary sector and universities, came together to discuss the barriers we are currently facing. We mapped out ideas we can take now to ease the pressure, as well as building towards a longer-term strategy. Discussions and ideas ranged from starting a city-wide campaign to celebrate our care workers to using everyday buildings as community hubs and providing additional incentives from Bristol businesses for those working in social care.  

This place-based response is important because it allows us to capture creativity and innovation beyond our sector. It also widens ownership and the understanding of what is essentially one of the biggest modern challenges of our time – that of an ageing society with a relatively smaller working-age population.

I know that this will not take the place of a long-term, fully funded, national health and care workforce plan. It does, however, put some power back into our hands and lift some of our despair: that in the face of often seemingly insurmountable challenges, there is something that we can do in the here and now.