What we should learn from COVID-19; and what social care ought to be like in the future

Featured article - 21 May 2020
By Ossie Stuart, SCIE trustee and equality and diversity consultant

SCIE trustee and equality and diversity consultant

Friday, March 20 was the day that everything changed. Prior to this, I still had faith in social care, that it would be there if I ever found myself in dire straits as a disabled person. That belief had never wavered, despite all those years of punishing austerity. This has changed and I have been left wondering who social care is for?

The guidance to seek support from family and friends left me feeling abandoned by those with the statutory duty to ensure I could remain safe in my own home. Now I understood what it really meant to be a vulnerable person. I am not alone.

The COVID-19 induced lockdown had a profound impact upon many more people than myself. So, while these reflections are my own, the experience will have been shared by many other equally dependent upon social care services. Especially those who organise and self-direct their own care.

Instead of clear plans, relevant advice and coordinated outreach to those who needed it most, we, as a society, did the opposite. Only, belatedly did we realise that users of services required special attention. However, all is not gloom and doom. Out of this crisis came new and different responses; ones that bode well for the future of social care. This will only be the case if lessons from the COVID-19 crisis are learnt. I can identify three.

The first is greater flexibility in its delivery. Second, is how intelligence is gathered and used. The final one is a change in the way we think about social care. Who should deliver it and who should benefit from it? These three changes will transform our understanding of social care.

Permission to spend

I have to say that the COVID-19 guidance provided by my Social Service was rather banal. Yet, one thing stood out like a beacon. This was “permission" to spend my social care Direct Payment as I saw fit. Given the years of oppressive policing of every penny, this came as a shock. While not a universal response across England and Wales, it meant I could make decisions about my care needs during this crisis without the anxiety I would normally have had doing so. This breath of fresh air is just one of many other examples of this new flexibility shown by social care services. We must not revert back to ‘business as usual’. Trusting us must continue.

This did not appear out of thin air. It had been informed by talking to people who use services. Technology has facilitated this. Out of necessity everyone accepts that new ways to communicate will be essential going forward. Even the Department of Health and Social Care established a bimonthly meeting with well-connected disabled people and users of services to help inform guidance and improve intelligence.

Responsive, individualised and reflective service

Yes, this has the makings of co-production and improved relationships between all those who have a shared interest in good social care services. We cannot have a responsive, individualised and reflective service without this greater trust that co-production brings. Yet, what should those services look like in the future?

COVID-19 has forced supermarkets, food delivery services and even technology companies to change the way they meet the needs of the most vulnerable. In my opinion, commission-based services would never have been the best way to achieve this. Had Apple Pay been invented by social care services, it would have been so hobbled by safeguarding concerns and vested interest it would have almost been unusable. Instead, it is the most amazing and useful payment system I have ever used.

What the COVID-19 crisis has shown is many services we would not associate with social care have suddenly become a key part of the system. Zoom, FaceTime, etc have become key tools to mitigate anxiety and poor mental health. Suddenly, Tesco and Sainsbury's are meeting the needs of vulnerable people from government-provided lists. We need to educate non-traditional services, many of them commercial ones, to help them add social care to their purpose.

The time has come to rethink what social care means and who delivers it. Listening to people is key. Without this, a transformation of the social care world cannot happen, and an opportunity is missed. If we only applied these three, I am certain social care would be the better for it.

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