COVID-19 and the Future of Frontline Social Care in the UK

by Leonardo Freitas, Senior Public Sector Analyst

The COVID-19 pandemic continues in the UK and the majority of the world, and even if signs of success on the disease control start to show in some western countries such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, the crisis is still far from its end. By now, governments have realised how fragile their welfare systems can be, and the strong interdependence between their economic output and services provided by the state.

In the UK, the social distancing being enforced in the phase two of the mitigation stage means a significant part of the population is still out of the workforce. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), unemployment claims rose by 69% in April alone, when 2.1 million people applying for benefits, compared to 856,000 in April 2019.

A weakened workforce means a decrease in tax revenues and contributions such as council tax payments on the state side, which also results in less funding to keep running public services. As a result, UK councils are being faced with large bills and an urgent need for adaptation of their services in the current scenario.

On the social services side, social distancing translates into a lower capability from state agents, social care workers and other key public servants to reach those in need in every council and borough, in a time where the most vulnerable need a hand from the state more than ever. In terms of personnel, Britain does have a strong social care workforce. In 2019, there was an estimated 1.1 million full time adult social care positions in the UK, representing 6% of the UK’s employment.

The figures above mean that UK councils should be able to cater for their vulnerable citizens with the current FTEs in a non-crisis scenario. With COVID-19 into the equation, services such as face-to-face visits and occasional checks on elderly citizens living on their own and others belonging to risk-groups for infections become a greater challenge. The majority of councils already counted with dedicated phone lines before the pandemic started, for their residents in need of urgent services such as food and prescription pick-ups. However, there is still a greater need for enabling state agents to have more contact with vulnerable residents in need of frequent care. In many instances, technology can help on bridging social distancing gaps of assistance.

To tackle the issue, a project rolled out at the beginning of the pandemic by Essex, Kent and Suffolk councils aimed to bridge the gap between care workers and vulnerable citizens in their areas through video-conferencing. The councils have procured 5,000 units of a closed-system tablet devices helping social care workers to monitor residents in need.

The system allows users to contact pre-approved social care workers and family members when in need of external help, and vice versa for daily medication reminders, symptoms’ check and emergency calls. Users can acknowledge completion of tasks and carers or responders can be notified if users don’t respond to pop-up reminders. Each tablet has an intuitive interface to be easily used by the elderly, and works with a SIM card, making it suitable for use on residences without a WiFi connection.

The example of Essex, Kent, and Suffolk councils should be analyzed closely by other local authorities in Britain which are still in need of a technology push to cope with the increase in care services’ demand. New technological approaches may present positive results, mitigating infection risks from COVID-19 for both the care workforce and cared citizens whilst still providing much-needed services to residents. It may also provide councils’ front-line services with better capacity to manage temporary decreases in workforce due to illness whilst service demands continue to escalate.

In the short term, information on new technologies can help councils to develop their services. Groups like the Local Government Association are providing support through advisory information and the approach taken by some of its member councils to advise other local authorities during the sanitary crisis.

The benefits of adapting services now could even stretch beyond the current situation. New care technologies purchased by local councils during the pandemic, if proven to be effective, may have a positive impact on the future of frontline social care in the UK, making services more efficient beyond the current health crisis and benefiting generations to come.

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