Recent headlines are, quite rightly, dominated by Covid-19. The world is gripped by the virus’s ability to take loved ones, change our daily routines and create anxiety and uncertainty about our futures.
While people in areas of high rates of infection transmission are bemoaning the need to quarantine or restrict social mobility, we ought to spare a thought for the key workers who are keeping us fed, cared for and provided with medical treatment. I am focusing on social care workers, health workers and those involved in the production, sale and delivery of essential food and services.
The pandemic has shown, if further evidence was needed, how crucial the social care workforce is to the well-being of people of all ages in communities across Wales. Without their critical contribution, the NHS cannot function effectively, as our social care workers help keep people safe, making sure they are only referred to hospital if they really need to be there.
In a recent publication, the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care compared the terms and conditions of frontline social care workers, employed in the independent sector or local authority, with health care support workers employed by the NHS.
The report shows there’s some evidence of variation in pay and conditions within and between each of the social care sectors, and between them and the NHS.
The research provides evidence that those who are employed in the independent and voluntary sector are paid less and have poorer employment benefits than those who are employed by local authorities.
The social care workforce is affected by high turnover and vacancy rates. The factors that were found to affect recruitment and retention included pay, the perceived low status of social care as a valued career option, competing jobs from other sectors (such as retail), and working hours and shift patterns.
As one worker from the independent sector said: “You are asking people to do the most difficult job in the worse conditions and pay them less than what they’d get in Asda.”
However, there’s evidence that other factors help determine how easy it is to recruit and retain social care staff, including employer benefits, such as support for personal development, feeling valued and levels of autonomy and job satisfaction.
The report reveals an even greater disparity between social care workers who provide frontline care and support, no matter who employs them, and health care support workers who are employed by the NHS and perform similar roles.
NHS employees benefit from the high status afforded to all NHS workers, as well as the additional benefits of higher rates of pay and sickness, maternity and paternity policies that are above minimum statutory requirements.
The NHS is a national system, where terms and conditions are universally agreed across the UK. This means comparable roles are paid at the same rates and the full benefits of being an NHS employee are enjoyed by all, no matter where you work.
Some politicians believe a national care system is the only way the social care sector can ensure parity of terms and conditions, and esteem, with its NHS partners.
This may be the best solution but is likely to take several years to come to fruition, as further resources would be needed and legislation would need to be enacted.
Whatever future governments choose to do to resolve the challenges of funding a sustainable social care system, it’s clear the citizens of Wales need assurance that social care services will be there when they or their family need them.