By Neil Crowther
The practical and emotional challenges of life under Covid19 have reminded us how we all want to live in the place we call home, with the people and things that we love, doing what matters to us, in communities where we look out for one another.
In ordinary times, the best social care helps to ensure that people who need some support to lead their life can realise these unremarkable ambitions.
But we are not living in ordinary times.
Today we all face extraordinary challenges in staying safe and well, in leading our lives and in coping with being separated from our loved ones.
As a result, the challenges involved in supporting people, many who are more susceptible to serious illness should they contract the virus, are enormous.
This is why what we are witnessing is extraordinary.
Daily we hear of the sense of duty and bravery that leads often underpaid and under-valued workers from the safety of their own homes to continue supporting other people in theirs.
Across our country and the wider world, we are witnessing an outpouring of kindness, neighbourliness, solidarity and social action, benefiting each of us and in particular those having to take the most far reaching steps to shield themselves and their families.
What we have seen in recent weeks is the phenomenal power of a blooming ecosystem of formal and informal support, rooted in values of shared humanity, duty, community and reciprocity. It is helping us all to navigate our way through the pandemic, whether those of us who ourselves need some support or the people that we love but who we cannot always reach. Crucially it is supporting millions to be in the place they call home, safe and well outside of hospital.
This is a huge show of strength in the face of adversity. It is powered, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson noted of the NHS, overwhelmingly by love.
It’s ironic, given the criticism we have made of the ‘crisis narrative’ surrounding social care, that it has taken this most profound of crisis to bring this about. Ideas long celebrated by #socialcarefuture are moving from the margins to the mainstream all over the world: setting free the power of community, urging and permitting cooperation and collaboration across historic silos, leading councils to trust people while shedding suffocating red-tape, unleashing people’s creativity and allowing people be the author of their own shared lives and using technology to overcome isolation and reach people in new ways.
Can this be sustained? Does it offer firm foundations on which to build a radically different future for what we today call social care?
The starting point, you will not be surprised to hear me say, is to get out there and frame the narrative.
We should not, of course, shy away from documenting the huge challenges that are being faced, the ensuing risks and the avoidable illness and loss of life among people requiring or receiving care and support that we are already witnessing. Social care has been neglected, care homes criminally so, when it comes to government policy and action. The lack of financial resilience among many providers, as a result of years of under-investment, allied to the bare cupboards of local government budgets and the long grass of funding reform, has certainly left much of the formal social care sector to face the pandemic with both hands tied behind its back.
But we have to remember that years of a ‘crisis narrative’ surrounding social care has helped ensure that while the NHS enjoyed a 60% positive approval rating among the public even before the current pandemic, only 29% of the public thought of social care positively, despite few really understanding what it is or does.
It’s worth asking here why the key message to the public is to ‘protect the NHS’, but no one says ‘protect social care’. In fact social care’s role is also cast as being to protect the NHS. Of course the vital role both play is that of protecting people. But the reason the NHS is elevated is because it is held to represent the very best of who we are. When we say we should protect it we mean we need to protect ourselves, not just in terms of our health, but also in terms of our values and identity as a nation. To lose the NHS would be to lose what it means to be us.
Can we begin to elevate social care in a similar way? It will take some heavy lifting to get there, but the starting point is staring us in the face: the way we have responded to the pandemic has shown that we care about one another. This is the value we need to keep reinforcing every time we talk about social care. Not ‘we care for vulnerable people’. Not ‘this sector is a Cinderella service.’ Not ‘we are fragile, broken and in crisis.’ Those messages lead to disassociation: that social care is not the best of us, but the worst of us. No, the message must always begin: ‘Because we care about one another…’
Because we care about one another, we act as good neighbours, helping with shopping, medication or just checking in and care workers bravely leave the safety of their own homes to keep supporting other people in theirs
Because we care about one another, we will ensure that government steps up, giving those working in care and support the personal protective equipment needed to ensure everyone is safe, the testing that can help reduce the chances of infection, and the financial sustainability to ensure support can reach those that the government has rightly said need the most support.
Because we care about one another, when this is over, we will try to sustain and grow the social infrastructure which has sustained so many, harnessing the renewable energy of communities by giving it a clear, long term role in the story of social care and community wellbeing.
Because we care about one another, we will redouble efforts to halt the growth of large residential care homes and other modes of congregate living, which place people in a vulnerable situation. We will chase out the profiteers and invest together in a long-term settlement to achieve care and support we can be proud of.
Because we care about one another, great care and support will help us all to be with our friends again, our families again, to meet again.