A powerful reminder of why we work in social care

Photo of Tim Baverstock

By Tim Baverstock, Somerset County Council Deputy Director, Adult Social Care
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimTimbav

This is a blog I felt compelled to write. It may be upsetting for some to read, but it’s a story which needs to be told – and one that those inside and outside social care should reflect on.

Care homes have been a major talking point of the Covid pandemic. The negative imagery and accompanying press coverage has, at times, been very hard to stomach for someone like myself – I’ve worked with this sector for many years, and have witnessed first-hand the dedication and commitment required by owners and staff alike.

I have been saddened to hear of care homes being blamed for lockdown, with some speculating that they are driving local outbreaks and no-go areas.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, it’s quite the reverse. Community transmission brought the virus into care homes, and the nature of personal care (i.e. staff and residents living and working in close proximity where social distancing is simply impossible) allowed it spread quickly from person to person. The impact this has had on residents and staff has been absolutely devastating.

I had my own brush with this while working on call with other colleagues over Christmas. Linden House in Wellington lost 9 residents as a direct result of a Covid-19 outbreak at the home, and at one point they had 80% of staff isolating. Sadly, they are one among many care homes affected, but I mention them personally as I witnessed first-hand the desperation and minute-by-minute challenges they faced over what should have been a happy time.

Earlier this month I received a sobering email from the owner of that care home. Typically, she began by thanking us for our support, but it was a brutally honest account describing the daily heartbreak, anxiety, and exhaustion care staff have been experiencing. Taking care providers and what they do for granted, is perhaps, something we are all guilty of. I think we’ve become too complacent, and that needs to change.

I have chosen to abandon my narrative and simply give you the words of Sandra, the owner of Linden House. I defy you to read her account and not be moved by it.

“I am passionate about raising awareness in any way possible about the plight of the small but dedicated providers within social care. I would be more than happy to speak to politicians too. Can’t promise I wouldn’t cry but….so yes please use anything that I have told you or anything that you want me to tell you / provide to you. I have just been speaking to another provider tonight who is going through what we went through, watching resident after resident test positive and never knowing until the last minute if they are going to have enough staff to staff the next shift. It is so upsetting to hear because like me, they want to learn lessons yet nobody can tell them what they are doing / have done wrong. It’s devastating, not being able to take any lessons away from such an experience. The weight of responsibility for the loss of so many lives (and the impact on so many others) is so heavy and difficult to bear.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my staff. Those who did not succumb to Covid at the very beginning worked incredibly hard in horrendous conditions: watching loved residents dying and being unable to give them the care that they both needed and deserved, due to there being insufficient staff; working alongside volunteers and different agency staff every day trying to provide continuity of care for the residents; working extra shifts to help cover the absence of those staff who fell by the wayside once they tested positive, quickly adapting to new ways of working which were critical to protect those within the home; worrying about their own families and the risk they were putting them through; working long shifts with few breaks etc, etc.

Not one of them complained to me. In fact, they were constantly offering to do more, and many of them – when they eventually tested positive themselves – would call me in tears, feeling that they had let down those of us left working! These are staff who are paid just above the National Living Wage. To me there is no comparison with the NHS staff. Please don’t misunderstand me, staff within the NHS work hard, but they have a huge amount of backup within the workplace (especially within hospitals) – better pay, more holidays and more recognition from the public for what they do. So many families tell us that until they came across us, they had no understanding of what goes on within a care home. Families are always commenting on the care and compassion (and fun) that they witness within the home. I’m not sure the “Care” promotion will make much difference to the general public, because by its very nature, social care is not something that Joe Public comes into contact with as often as the NHS, but if we could only get the politicians to understand our situation – and our value to society – that would be a start.

I have just received a report from a visit undertaken by the CCG on 6 January in which the main finding was the concern about the mental health of my staff team – some of whom have suffered from what they have witnessed while at work, and also from family health crises at home. It’s not going to go away quickly for any of us.

Some of the NHS nurses who were drafted in to help us went away quite beside themselves at how isolated they felt without the knowledge that backup was just a few corridors away! It’s lonely out here as a small provider but I feel so blessed to have a job that I adore, and so honoured that I get to spend time with people who start off as complete strangers and within a very short time become part of the Linden family and who share their fears, their life experiences and look to us to bring meaning into their lives . What a responsibility and what a joy to succeed in bringing some happiness and contentment to so many people towards the end of their lives. Who would want to do any other job?!!! I love it – just struggling at the moment….”

This has been a difficult year for us all, but Sandra’s words are a powerful reminder of why we work in social care.

As a County Council we have done our best to support our care providers. We provided additional funds at the outset, sourced PPE during time of national shortages, and supported each case and outbreak through our care sector cell to help keep infection rates down as much as possible. But the battle to protect our most vulnerable people continues.

My job now moves to trying to secure the future of homes like this – they’ve seen temporary staffing costs spiral, income decimated and no prospect of a quick solution to having less people as part of their family. How cruel that social care is so often monetised and fought over.

Now though, is the time for us all to campaign for what we know is true: personalised care and support, at home or in care homes, is precious to the people we support and is something we need to stabilise in the first instance and then value and invest in for the future.

There is some hope for these settings. Early vaccination data shows a marked difference on the impact of an outbreak close to or within a home that has been vaccinated as opposed to previous spread patterns from ones that were not. This is hugely encouraging and will save lives as well as protect staff and staffing levels.
As for Sandra and all the staff at Linden House and across Somerset, all I can say is that I am tremendously grateful for all those who see their care home not as a place of work, but as a family. It is going to take them a long time to get over what has happened to those they cared for, and we must never, ever forget the personal sacrifices they have made. They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic and I’m proud to share their story.

Please, next time you visit a care home or bump into someone who works in one, think of Sandra’s words and just say thank you to them – they will deserve it.