Until a year ago I was part of the adult social care sector in the UK, having worked for a provider representative body for nearly 10 years. I am now in Australia, working for an older people’s care provider, and my experience of the Covid-19 crisis stands in stark contrast to that of my former colleagues.
I feel a range of emotions. I have a huge sense of pride for the many working in or with the UK sector who have spoken out, insisting that staff are not low-skilled but are providing essential services, and telling stories of the incredible care and compassion being delivered in these extraordinary times. However, it seems like a battleground – the scene of an unnecessary, avoidable conflict.
I watch the news, read reports and absorb activity on social media that of course doesn’t tell the whole story, but gives a clear impression of a UK government that is out of its depth, doesn’t demonstrate effective and decisive leadership, and doesn’t utilise scientific evidence to shape and inform critical decisions.
Important messages – such as around the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) – fail to land because the ministers who deliver them seem to have only shallow knowledge of social care, and to lack confidence and competence. It feels chaotic and disordered. The economic situation appears to be considered more important than the people the government are in place to lead and serve.
By contrast – and irrespective of political persuasion – here in Australia both federal and state governments have acted swiftly and decisively. Not all decisions have been welcomed and there will always be details that need sifting, but guidance has been considered and communicated clearly. What is noticeable is that the prime minister, the state premiers and chief medical officers have been the ones communicating day in, day out.
The Australian Department of Health has been producing regular bulletins, which appear at least weekly containing all information pertaining to the sector, notably the available support and resources. This doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges with testing and tracing and with availability of PPE, but there has been an honesty and openness that is lacking in the UK with such devastating consequences.
As of 19 June, there were 7,409 reported Covid-19 cases across the whole of Australia (population some 25m), with 6,882 reported recovered and 102 deaths. Almost 2m tests had been conducted, with 0.4% found positive.
In the older people’s care sector, there had been just 69 cases in residential care, resulting in 29 deaths, and 31 in homecare, three of which proved fatal.
Whereas guidance on visiting care homes in England has been limited and late, the Australian health protection principal committee has regularly reviewed and updated guidance on visiting restrictions. The latest version, published on 19 June and easing previous curbs, is clear and concise: residents can now leave their care homes and have up to two visitors, but as it is winter in the southern hemisphere, all visitors as well as staff must have a flu vaccination.
Financial measures have been put in place to support Australian care workers: a workforce retention bonus grant helps employers maintain continuity of their teams, paying up to Aus$800 (£446) for each residential worker and up to Aus$600 (£334) for each homecare worker once in July and again at the end of August; and a “jobkeeper payment” that offers all employers a fortnightly subsidy of Aus$1,500 (£837) for each worker until the end of September.
Application processes for these grants have admittedly not been without their challenges, and many employers think the criteria for the jobkeeper payment are too restrictive. But this direct support is far preferable to the patchy extra funding for English care providers channelled via local councils.
The profile and visibility of UK adult social care in general, and of care homes in particular, has risen significantly during the pandemic. What will be the takeaway for the UK government? Will the years of neglect finally be addressed?
Ministers have an opportunity to act decisively. Indeed they have a duty to do so. Multiple reports and commissions over many years have advocated reform and a long-term solution for the sector; never has there been a more critical time for effective leadership.
Sadly, if the Westminster government’s management of Covid-19 is used as a barometer, I have little confidence of seeing that leadership from my perspective on the other side of the world.