Care worker numbers fall, leaving more people without support

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Cathy with her mum Maureen

The number of care workers in England has fallen for the first time, leaving more people without the support they need, new figures reveal.

Unfilled care jobs rose by 52% in a year, the fastest rate on record, says industry body, Skills for Care.

One woman told the BBC the struggle to get care for her 83-year-old mother had been “a nightmare”.

Skills for Care Chief Executive Oonagh Smyth wants “a step change” in how we value social care.

The latest annual Skills for Care workforce analysis found in the year to March there were:

  • a total of 1.79 million posts in adult social care
  • of these 1.62 million were filled, leaving 165,000 vacant – a rise of 52% on the previous year
  • the number of filled posts fell by 50,000 compared with the previous year – the first drop ever

Bar chart showing drop in filled adult social care jobs

The fall is due to problems with recruiting and retaining staff – but, at the same time, the demand for care has risen, says the report.

It warns the shortage of care workers will increasingly affect people who need support, and their families.

‘Totally broken’

Cathy’s family has already felt that impact.

Her mother Maureen died at home from liver cancer on the same day as Queen Elizabeth.

The last few months of Maureen’s life were shaped by the failings of the health and care system.

She was told the struggle to find care staff was particularly difficult because she lived in a rural area. On her own at home and without care, she had a series of falls which put her in hospital.

Maureen in happier times

Family photo/BBC

Once, she was discharged from a hospital emergency department to an empty house at 03:00 and, within hours, had fallen again.

Her condition deteriorated and she became eligible for NHS-funded end-of-life care visits.

Even so, she was stuck in hospital for more than a week after doctors said she was ready to go home, waiting for the authorities to find a care company able to visit her four times a day.

Finally Cathy, “desperate and appalled”, found care providers herself and persuaded the NHS to pay for them.

“Good care is what you would want for yourself and for your parents, your mother for your father, or for anyone and it’s not there. It doesn’t exist. It’s totally broken,” she says.

Rising demand

The report warns experiences like this will become more common as the population ages, and employers will need to fill about 480,000 more posts by 2035.

On top of that, more than a quarter (28%) of the existing workforce are aged over 55 and likely to retire within 10 years.

In addition:

  • four out of five jobs in the wider economy pay more than the median pay for care workers
  • the average care worker gets £1 an hour less than a newly hired NHS healthcare assistant
  • care workers with five years experience get just 7p an hour more than new recruits

Separate research from the Health Foundation charity, also published on Tuesday, found one in five residential care workers in the UK were already living in poverty before the cost-of-living crisis, compared with one in eight of all workers.

Minimum wage

James Waterhouse, from Rotherham, worked for about 10 years in homes for people with dementia.

For James, helping “the most vulnerable people in society, going through probably the worst disease you can get… and being able to bring something good to their lives… it does make it worthwhile”.

James Waterhouse

Until last year he was a senior carer, in charge of administering medication for up to 40 people overnight – and earned the minimum wage.

He had money worries and felt he couldn’t progress in life. Finally he left for better-paid work.

“It just adds to the stress within the job… so you add those things together and on many occasions, not only myself but other carers, you just end up breaking down at work.”

Long-term thinking

Oonagh Smyth, of Skills for Care, wants better terms, conditions and career development for care workers “to make it easier for the people who love working in social care to stay”.

“We need to think now about the long-term workforce requirements… so that we have enough people with the right skills and knowledge to meet increased demand,” says Ms Smyth in her foreword to the report.

The government points out the report only covers the period until March and says, since then, tens of thousands of care workers have been appointed from overseas after the role was added to the shortage occupation list.

“We’re investing in adult social care and have made £500m available to support discharge from hospital into the community and bolster the workforce this winter, on top of record funding to support our ten-year plan set out in the People at the Heart of Care White Paper,” said an official.

The official said a £15m international recruitment fund and a new domestic campaign would be launched soon.

The Skills for Care report is based on analysis of figures collected from 20,000 employers.

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