Social care Insights

Social care vacancies are climbing and yet thousands of staff may have to leave their jobs. The Government’s policy on compulsory vaccination is a real risk, says Simon Bottery.

Every month since COVID-19 emerged in March 2020, Skills for Care has been publishing monthly data on vacancies in adult social care. It has to be treated with a degree of caution – it’s not necessarily representative but is still the best available data on sector trends.

Overall, it suggests that, in the early stages of the pandemic, social care vacancies were low compared to their historic levels but have been climbing since. As of July 2021, they were just 1% below their level in April 2020. There are differences between sectors. Vacancies in care and nursing homes are still lower than before the pandemic (standing at 5.8% and 5.4% respectively) but vacancies in domiciliary care are now higher at a whopping 11.6%. This surely reflects the upsurge in demand for home care services as people are put off using care homes.

These rates are, of course, worrying – they were already too high before COVID-19 and are now creeping uncomfortably back to those pre-pandemic levels (indeed, some providers already talk about this being the worst time they can remember for vacancies).

On top of this, however, the care home sector is now facing the V-bomb: the law requiring staff in homes to be vaccinated or, in most cases, leave their jobs by November 2021. The Government’s own impact analysis suggests that this will mean between 17,000 and 70,000 staff (with a central estimate of around 40,000) leaving the care home sector, out of around 570,000 who work in it.

The impact assessment accepts that a ‘potentially large number of replacement workers may be needed’ but says there are ‘plausible reasons’ to suggest ‘this may be possible’ (if you are thinking that this doesn’t sound like the author has complete confidence in his or her argument, you are surely right). It notes that the furlough scheme is ending, which may lead to a ‘possible [that word again] sudden increase in the size of the adult social care workforce entrant pool’. It argues that some people even choose to come into social care now because their workplace will offer an increased level of protection compared to others. And it thinks that some care workers will fail to get their vaccinations in time but then come back to care once they have.

The document touches only briefly on potential local and regional differences in the potential impact on the care sector. That is surprising because a brief glance at the Skills for Care data shows that, while the vacancy rate in England overall stands at 7.5%, in London it is 10.6%. That ought to start ringing a few alarm bells because take up of the vaccine among care home staff is also lower in London: as of 27th July, 78% of older people’s care home staff had had both doses, but only 74.1% in London (there is a similar difference among staff in younger people’s care homes). So, there is a risk that the area with the highest vacancy rate may also lose the most staff, yet there is no mention of that in the risk assessment.

Perhaps the document’s optimism will be borne out by reality. Perhaps there will be less impact on staffing numbers than expected and there will be a compensating rush of new staff from outside social care to fill the gaps. Perhaps care home staff will move to home care (although the Government will consult on whether to extend the policy there as well). Perhaps. If not, the Government – which did not even provide the document in time for the Commons vote on the policy – will have a lot of explaining to do to the sector, its staff and, most importantly, the hundreds of thousands of people who rely on social care services.

Simon Bottery is a Senior Fellow in Social Care at The King’s Fund. Email: Twitter: @blimeysimon

About Simon Bottery

Before joining The King’s Fund in 2017, Simon spent almost 10 years as Director of Policy at the older people’s charity Independent Age. He has wide experience in policy, communications and journalism, including as Director of Communications at Citizens Advice, in the commercial sector for Guinness and in BBC local radio.

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