The continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic – a staffing crisis in the care sector

As at 5 January 2022, over 11,000 care home workers were reported to have been off work due to COVID-19. Over 90 care home operators in England have declared a “red” alert, meaning staffing ratios have been breached. Care Forum Wales reported that up to 75% of care staff are currently off work. Appeals to the Welsh Government have been made by numerous care homes for a significant increase in PPE to address this. This is a major problem with clear consequences for care standards. However, staff absence due to self-isolation is not the only pandemic-related issue likely to impact staffing levels.

Reduced staffing levels will negatively impact the standard of care which remaining staff are able to provide to residents, with the potential of increasing the risk of injury and neglect due to an insufficient carer to resident ratio. Some care home operators have reportedly felt forced to allow employees with positive COVID-19 tests to continue working in order to address the risks presented by the lack of staff, which in turn presents the additional risk of transmission to elderly and vulnerable residents. It is not clear how care providers will be able to alleviate these risks, or whether further Government assistance will be provided.

The Government has proposed that the mandatory vaccine requirement, which is currently in place for care home staff, be extended to the wider care sector and to NHS staff. When this was implemented for care home staff alone on 11 November 2021, it was predicted that this would result in 50,000 staff leaving the sector.

Because of these additional pressures, the sector is experiencing a significant staff retention issue, with the attrition rate reported to be around 1/3 at present. Some providers are now offering bonuses and pay increases in an attempt to alleviate this, but such incentives may not be an option for all providers.

One potential remedy proposed by the Government is the recent addition of care staff to the Shortage Occupation List, with temporary changes to the health and care visa allowing employers to recruit social care workers, care assistants and homecare workers from overseas: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/biggest-visa-boost-for-social-care-as-health-and-care-visa-scheme-expanded.

However, this so-called “visa boost” will only be in place for 12 months, and the short-term nature of the scheme may make it unattractive to many workers. Furthermore, the terms of the boost stipulate a minimum annual salary of £20,480. Totaljobs reports that the average annual salary of a care home worker is £17,200 but there will clearly be some variation from this depending on location and the type of care provider. Some Care providers  may therefore not be in a position to pay the stipulated salary, putting this remedy out of reach for them.

The scheme is in its infancy, and it remains to be seen how successful it will be in alleviating the staffing crisis in the care sector.


Written by Emma Draper at BLM (emma.draper@blmlaw.com)

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