By Carren Bell | April 3, 2020
Carren Bell, Founder of Lagan’s Foundation, writes on the lack of protective equipment for social care and the failings the sector’s been subjected to.
When history looks back at the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, it is sure to bemoan how poorly prepared we were in so many ways for this paralysing pandemic.
I hope it also notes that, in the face of inadequate guidance, scarce resources and worst of all, paltry protective equipment, an army of care workers saw us through. And not all of them were wearing white coats, stethoscopes or scrubs.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock recently dispatched a thank you to those working in care homes, homecare and even those caring for their own relatives with conditions such as dementia.
And so he should. Because in the face of a war conducted without armour, we soldiered on – and risked our very lives.
It should never have been this way. With warnings galore about the dire possible impact of COVID-19, Britain should have been prepared with an array of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the means to access it easily.
But it wasn’t.
It was shameful enough that we were over a week into lockdown before surgeries were supplied with PPE by a triumphant NHS England. And what a haphazard mess that was. Some days it was available, some days it was not. On the wards, the picture was simply shoddy. Hospitals were using out-of-date face masks and one Clinical Commissioning Group left its primary care workers to source their own.
At Lagan’s Foundation, our role is to go into the homes of children with heart defects and severe feeding issues and offer parents much-needed respite. That can’t be done remotely, obviously. But bereft of PPE, and unable to devote hours of volunteer time to trying to contact NHS outlets that didn’t even advertise a phone number, we were left to shop online and to stock-up from the local shops. And anyone who has attempted to buy bread, hand sanitizer and toilet paper in recent weeks knows just how difficult that is. Plus, lockdown has put an end to all of our charitable fundraising events, which means that this approach came at a perilous price.
We, like many other small charities, were stuck with a dichotomy. Thinking of the safety of those we support and our team (many of whom are volunteers), we wondered whether we could ask them to go into the homes of some of the most vulnerable. They wanted to carry on, and did, as long as they exhibited no symptoms themselves. It would have been nice if we could have got them tested, but at time of writing, not even A&E staff have had that facility.
Lagan’s was not alone in being abandoned. Pharmacy staff, even the fire service who would come into contact with people to deliver essential supplies, were also left unguarded.
Our charity plugs the gaps left by the state. Like so many other independent charities, it provides a service that most of the public probably thinks is delivered by social services or community nurses. I am so proud that Lagan’s catches those children who fall through the cracks.
We all have our views on austerity. But I cannot help thinking that these voluntary sector organisations, now so vital to our communities, have been let down terribly at the first sign of trouble. Whilst politicians promise better pathways between health and social care, the latter gets the scraps from a table that wasn’t particularly well-set in the first place.
The message this sends out is that social care will always be second. Even more alarmingly, it suggests to all those thinking of volunteering to help the vulnerable that they won’t be looked after properly and may be risking their own skins in their quest to do good. Hardly an incentive, is it?
Thankfully, one of the few positives I foresee coming from this coronavirus calamity is that people will stop taking their health for granted. They will realise that new strains of illness will materialise and that pandemics don’t respect borders (drug resistant superbugs are one we can’t ignore, for example). And they will note that everyone from the child with the heart condition to the rough sleeper, will be most prone to critical illness.
In the way that this new spirit of care has inspired people to volunteer for the NHS, let it galvanise everyone to get out there and contribute to the wellbeing of our communities.
Only, next time, let us be properly protected too.