The social care workforce has shrunk for the first time in nearly a decade despite rising demand and an overcrowding of hospital beds fueled by a shortage of care places.
England is expected to need close to 500,000 more carers by the middle of the next decade, but last year there was a net fall in the workforce of 50,000 people, leaving around 165,000 jobs vacant, according to new figures from Skills for Care.
Care experts said the downturn revealed the “absolute crisis” facing a system still reeling from the impact of Covid and Brexit. A £500m workforce fund set up last month by the government has remained dismissed as “a drop in the ocean” and councils are calling for £3bn to be pumped into better pay and recruitment.
“People’s lives and dignity are at risk,” said Helen Wildbore, director of the Relatives & Residents Association. “The impact of this is on people who are really vulnerable and are being left without the care and support they need.”
Skills for Care found that the quality of care fell with fewer staff.
Chronically low wages are a key problem, with one in five nursing home workers — most of whom are women and disproportionately black — estimated to be in poverty, according to a separate study by the Health Foundation think tank of earnings data even before the cost-of-living crisis hit.
Bosses at councils, which pay some or all of the fees for almost half of care home residents, described the poverty figures as “incredibly worrying” and said low pay was affecting care recipients’ ability to live a straight life.
The average hourly wage for carers, £9.50, is currently £1 less than entry-level healthcare workers in the NHS receive. This week is job available on Amazon warehouses for people with zero previous experience paying £11.45 an hour for a day shift, rising to £22.90 an hour overtime. Almost a quarter of care jobs are on precarious zero-hours contracts, compared with 3% in the wider population.
Meanwhile, hospitals are having to keep patients in wards longer than necessary because there are not enough care beds and home care packages available, which slows down the delivery of other medical treatments.
“Our society needs a change in how it values social care and the amazing people who provide it,” said Oonagh Smyth, chief executive of Skills for Care. “We need to talk more about how rewarding social care is to work in, so we attract more people, and we need to make it easier for the people who love working in social care to continue by improving terms and conditions and investing in their career development. “
As life expectancy increases, the population with dementia – currently 900,000 – is expected to hit 1.6 million in 2040. The staff shortage is also expected to increase because more than one in four care staff are aged 55 or over and approaching retirement.
Simon Bottery, social care expert at the Kings Fund think tank, said the staffing data revealed the “absolute crisis” in the system. The Kings Fund recently found that nine out of the 10 biggest supermarkets paid more than the average social worker receives.
“If there aren’t enough carers, people go unaided for basic tasks like washing and dressing, and they’re stuck in hospital because they can’t be discharged home,” he said.
Hugh Alderwick, director of policy at the Health Foundation, said many social workers “cannot afford food, shelter, clothing and other essentials”.
Rachel Harrison, national officer of the GMB union, which represents carers, said: “Without the dedication of our carers, the whole house of cards will topple.” She called for a minimum wage of £15 an hour for carers.
A government spokesman cited its £500m fund “to support discharge from hospital into the community and strengthen the workforce this winter, on top of record funding to support our 10-year plan”.
“Tens of thousands of additional workers have also joined since we added carers to the health and care worker visa and shortage occupations list,” they added. “The Government is backing recruitment at home and abroad – with a £15m international recruitment fund and a new domestic campaign launching soon.”