John McDonnell: England’s social care system is broken

People face isolation, indignity, maltreatment and neglect, writes the former Shadow Chancellor ahead of the launch of a new campaign.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the grotesque inequalities in our society, making it abundantly clear that radical change is urgently needed. 

Nowhere is change more urgently necessary than in social care.

Ten years of austerity imposed by successive Conservative governments alongside the privatisation of social care left the system totally unprepared to cope with the COVID pandemic.

The result has been in many elderly people dying lonely and painful deaths and many care staff left unprotected, with such dedication putting their lives at risk to care for our relatives.

Promise after promise has been made by Tory Prime Ministers that the system will be reformed and proper levels of care provided, including this week Johnson’s warm words but no policy and no funding.

Literally we have heard it all before time and time again and on each occasion instead of change there has been yet another round of cuts and privatisations.

Let’s shout it out as loudly as we can: England’s social care system is broken.

People face isolation, indignity, maltreatment and neglect as well as barriers to inclusion and independent living. Care and support do not reflect users’ needs or wishes. Many small providers have folded; care homes are increasingly managed by corporates and hedge funds that generate massive offshore profits.

There are 26% fewer people supported in 2020 than in 2010, and local authority spending on social care has fallen by 49% in real terms despite rising population and demand.

Disabled and elderly people who need social care and support face high charges, leaving thousands in poverty. Staff wages, training and conditions are at rock bottom with around a quarter paid at the national living wage of £7.83/hour or less, and 24% on zero-hour contracts. Eight million unpaid, overworked family carers, including children and elderly relatives, provide vital support.

As new cases of Covid rapidly rise and begin to overtake the capacity of our NHS hospitals rocket, councils are once again asking homes to take infected patients. There are over 410,000 people currently living in care homes with almost half of newly admitted residents coming from hospitals. Let us not forget that the UK holds the European record for numbers of deaths from Covid-19, 20,000 of which occurred in care homes.

Staff frequently reported feeling completely unsupported and two thirds of homes were unable to isolate patients carrying the virus. In addition, hard pressed community care workers with inadequate PPE and on zero hours contracts were likely to have inadvertently spread infection as well as suffering an excess of deaths themselves. With another spike in the virus now materialising, it’s time to act decisively and create the caring services we need.

In his speech this week, Johnson, true to form, has disingenuously plagiarised a speech and Guardian article I had written in the early stages of the pandemic. In it, I reminded people that in the depths of the Second World War progressives came together to say: never again would they allow our people experience the harm of the 1930s depression years but also they started to dream, discuss and plan the new society they aimed to build as we came out of the war.

As usual Johnson demonstrated his passing relationship to the truth.

It was socialists and progressives who dreamt and designed that new Jerusalem that they wanted to build post war and it was the Attlee Labour government in the teeth of Conservative bitter and dogged opposition that built that welfare state , constructing the NHS by taking health services into public ownership despite a national debt following the second world war more than twice the size of the UK’s current debt.

It falls to us now to complete the work of the Attlee government elected 75 years ago and establish the National Care and Support Service, in public ownership and under democratic control alongside the NHS.

Too many lives have been lost and too much human suffering has been inflicted on our fellow citizens by the current failing privatised system.

It really is time to create a national care and support service that puts care above profits and effectively meets the needs of our community.

John McDonnell is a Labour MP and former Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Keep Our NHS Public are campaigning for social care to be overhauled. Saturday sees the online launch of their campaign, featuring speakers including John McDonnell.

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