Nursing homes across the UK have faced a challenging 24 months, with successive waves of the Covid-19 pandemic – and associated restrictions – putting unprecedented pressure on the adult social care sector. However, while providers have successfully overcome a myriad of hurdles since early 2020, one problem stubbornly persists: the care home skills crisis.

The reasons behind the care home skills crisis

In recent months, the mainstream media has frequently shared how both vacancy numbers and turnover rates across the sector are worryingly high. However, it is worth noting that the staffing challenges that care homes are currently facing are by no means a new phenomenon. There were already estimated to be more than 120,000 social care vacancies before the pandemic. Since the dawn of Covid, however, the situation has worsened.

According to workforce body Skills for Care, on average 6.8 per cent of adult social care roles were unfilled on any given day in 2020-21. The organisation’s latest annual report also found that turnover was high, at 28.5 per cent, equating to approximately 410,000 people leaving over the course of the year. Furthermore, in January of this year, it was recorded that over 90 care home operators in England reported a ‘red alert’ after staff ratios were breached. Some providers reported that up to 50% of their workers were isolating at any one time.

Working in adult social care is never easy, and sourcing, recruiting and retaining individuals with both a passion and skills for care has always been fairly difficult. Lately, though, a perfect storm of external forces has made hiring social care staff even harder. Together, an exodus of non-UK nationals post-Brexit, mandatory vaccinations for care workers, and challenging working conditions due to the pandemic have meant that local authorities and private care services are scrambling for skills in a shrinking talent pool. Add to this the fact that a growing proportion of remaining workers are having to isolate themselves after being infected with Omicron, and it’s easy to see why employers are struggling.

The current situation is, unsurprisingly, having an impact on service delivery and quality of care up and down the country. It was recently reported that community care could be rationed in England as providers are forced to prioritise services amid staff shortages. Elsewhere, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass) has warned that care home residents are habitually experiencing ‘lockdown by another name’ due to Covid-related staff absences.

Decision-makers are working at a local level to help relieve pressure on services. In Northamptonshire, for example, £7million has been ringfenced to provide all care workers with a £600 bonus to thank them for their loyalty. The payment will be made in March to existing staff and to new starters. In the South of England, meanwhile, hotels are being used as temporary care facilities.

There is no doubt that care homes are firefighting on the staffing front – but as we move into 2022, there does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Fixing the care home skills crisis

Thankfully, it seems that the worst of the care home skills crisis may soon be behind us, with government initiatives finally responding to the sector’s calls for support.

The second instalment of the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) £160 million retention and recruitment fund for adult social care is set to be released this month. The department’s expectation is that the grant will be fully spent on ‘addressing local workforce capacity pressures through recruitment and retention activity by 31st March 2022’.

The government has also responded to calls to ease immigration rules for care workers, following a recommendation from the Migration Advisory Committee, which said there were “severe and increasing difficulties faced by the care sector”. Care workers who arrive on a 12-month health and care visa must receive an annual salary of at least £20,480 to qualify, with the measures expected to come into effect early next year. All roles in SOC Code 6145 will be brought into the scope of this visa change. According to ONS, this includes the job titles: Care Assistant, Care Worker, Carer, Home Care Assistant, Home Carer and Support Worker (Nursing Home).

What’s more, the government has also pledged to invest £5.4bn into social care between 2022-23 and 2024-25 as part of reforms to health and social care funding announced in September. This includes a £500m workforce fund, with a further £162.5m fund to help recruit and keep social care staff.

Long term, government initiatives to help recruit and retain vital skills in the sector will hopefully help to ease the staff shortages facing Britain’s care homes. Meanwhile, here at QS Care, we are doing everything we can to support both the social care workforce and care providers as they navigate the care home skills crisis during this difficult time.