COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our lives over the last year and the social care market has been impacted more than most. Demand has fallen; some smaller providers have folded; and cost pressures have risen. But the sector has also displayed resilience and, as necessity drives innovation, the need to respond to the pandemic has resulted in improved collaboration across local government, the voluntary and the private sector.
Reduction in demand
The nursing and residential care home market in the UK is significant, consisting of approximately 420,000 beds, in around 11,200 homes. The prevalence of the virus in care homes has had a clear impact on demand over the last twelve months. The Care Quality Commission (CQC) found that occupancy levels in care homes are estimated to have reduced by around 10% during the first wave of the pandemic last year, which is likely to have placed great financial strain on providers. However, the sector will likely be buoyed by the ongoing vaccine roll-out and, if it continues successfully, when combined with the aging population in the UK, we expect that demand in the sector is not likely to fluctuate for long.
While the pandemic has resulted in a number of vacancies in care homes, capacity constraints are more commonly the biggest issue facing the sector, particularly within care homes with Good or Outstanding CQC quality ratings. Quality within the sector can vary and it is evidently under strain with research from the National Care Association last year finding that almost three quarters of providers surveyed were concerned about the sustainability of their service. While a possible reduction in care home capacity is not conducive to a sector normally in high demand, it could drive an increase in the number of quality and alternative types of care that offer more opportunities for continued independence for its residents, such as Extra Care facilities.
The pandemic has placed a huge amount of pressure on staff within the care sector. With staff absence rates up to 50% in some services according to the National Care Forum, providers are needing to support sick staff and draw on agency support or recruit new staff to continue the provision of much needed services. The £120million fund announced earlier this year to support those struggling in paying for extra staff or to pay existing staff overtime, will bolster the sector and, critically, allow areas to implement schemes to support a workforce under extreme pressure.
Collaboration is key
Despite the many challenges faced this year, there have been pockets of increased collaboration across the voluntary, private and local government sectors. We have heard heart-warming stories of charities stepping in to produce meals for care home residents when kitchen staff tested positive for coronavirus and no alternative support could be found. Short-term solutions like these are sparking longer-term partnerships. We are hearing that local government teams are reporting improved relationships with private providers and joint plans are being developed for the future off the back of the lessons learnt during the time when bureaucracy was set aside.
It’s clear that the past year has had a significant impact on demand within the care sector, caused an increase in costs and resulted in challenges to market capacity. But it has also boosted collaboration in some areas and, with the vaccine programme underway as we slowly start to move out of lockdown, it’s likely that demand will start to increase and, while challenges remain, focus will be able to return to building a longer-term sustainable solution for the sector.