The social care workforce has shrunk for the first time in almost a decade despite rising demand and bed congestion in hospitals fueled by a lack of care places.
England is projected to need close to 500,000 more care staff by the middle of the next decade, but last year there was a net fall in the workforce of 50,000 people, leaving about 165,000 jobs vacant, according to new figures from Skills for Care.
Care experts said the slump exposed the “absolute crisis” facing a system still reeling from the impact of Covid and Brexit. A £500m workforce fund created last month by the government has been dismissed as “a drop in the ocean” and councils are calling for £3bn to be pumped into better pay and recruitment.
“People’s lives and dignity are at risk,” said Helen Wildbore, director of the Relatives & Residents Association. “The impact of this is on people who are really vulnerable and are left without the care and support they need.”
Skills for Care found that quality of care fell with fewer staff.
Chronically meagre wages are a key problem, with one in five care home workers – most of whom are women and disproportionately black – estimated to be in poverty, according to a separate study by the Health Foundation thinktank of earnings data even before the cost of living crisis hit.
Bosses at councils, which pay some or all of the fees for almost half of care home residents, described the poverty figures as “incredibly troubling” and said low pay was affecting the ability of care recipients to live an equal life.
The average hourly pay of care workers, £9.50, is currently £1 less than novice healthcare assistants in the NHS receive. This week jobs are available at Amazon warehouses for people with zero previous experience paying £11.45 per hour for a day shift, rising to £22.90 per hour overtime. Almost a quarter of care jobs are on precarious zero-hours contracts compared with 3% in the wider population.
Meanwhile, hospitals are having to keep patients on wards longer than necessary because there aren’t enough care beds and homecare packages available, which is slowing down the delivery of other medical treatments.
“Our society needs a step change in how it values social care and the great people who provide it,” said Oonagh Smyth, the chief executive of Skills for Care. “We must talk more about how rewarding social care is to work in so that we attract more people, and we must make it easier for the people who love working in social care to stay by improving terms and conditions and investing in their career development. ”
As life expectancy rises, the population with dementia – currently 900,000 – is expected to hit 1.6m by 2040. The staff shortage is also set to deepen because more than one in four care workers are aged 55 or over and nearing retirement.
Simon Bottery, social care expert at the Kings Fund thinktank, said the staffing data exposed the “absolute crisis” in the system. The Kings Fund recently found that nine out of the 10 largest supermarkets paid more than the average social care worker receives.
“If there are not enough care workers, people go without help for basic tasks like washing and dressing and they are stuck in hospital because they can’t be discharged home,” he said.
Hugh Alderwick, policy director at the Health Foundation, said many social care workers “cannot afford enough food, shelter, clothing and other essentials”.
Rachel Harrison, national officer at the GMB trade union, which represents care workers, said: “Without the dedication of our care workers, the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.” She called for a £15-an-hour minimum wage for carers.
A government spokesperson cited its £500m fund “to support discharge from hospital into the community and bolster the workforce this winter, on top of record funding to support our 10-year plan”.
“Tens of thousands of extra staff have also joined up since we added care workers to the health and care worker visa and the shortage occupation list,” they added. “The government is backing recruitment at home and abroad – with a £15m international recruitment fund and a new domestic campaign launching shortly.”