Skip to main content

"Put the Message in the Box..." Resetting Social Care

08 July 2020

This week in the NHS Confederation’s #NHSReset campaign, the focus rests on the theme of social care. In this blog post, interim Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Social Care Council, Patricia Higgins, reflects on life during lockdown, shines a light on the Social Care workforce and inspires us to be constant drivers of change. She also leaves us humming a familiar tune…

“Put the Message in the Box…” A quarter of the year has now been spent working at home in the box room. It’s been relentless, but I dare not complain. The room has morphed into an office, Zoom engine room and is the hub of all Social Care Council activity. ‘Boxed in’ I’m surrounded by picture frames housing memories of family and from our distant world travels. All of this has led me to the gift of introspection. Things I will change when ‘normal life’ resumes and new habits I will maintain. Before this pandemic, we tiptoed around the edges of remote working, digital transformation and much-needed new models of care, but it was slow and broadly unchanging. Recently across all sectors, the pace of change around collaboration, innovation and adaptability is unprecedented. We’re finding different ways of organising work, home life and education, healthcare, social and family life. As leaders, we are collectively harnessing opportunities and demonstrating that compassionate leadership is the most powerful way to bring about change.

Shining a light on Social Care During these unprecedented times, the light has been shining brightly on all the dedicated health and social care staff working on the frontline serving and caring for the most vulnerable in our society. Amongst these are over 40,000 registered social care workers, working in all sectors and across all programmes of care, providing care every day to those in need whether it is in their own home, a nursing home, or a supported living setting. The young and old, people with learning difficulties, people with physical disabilities, people with mental illness and people who are homeless are all being supported by social care workers and within an integrated health and social care system. Not long after the lockdown, I had the opportunity to hear from a social care worker who shared her experience with me:

“I’m doing what I always do. The only thing that has changed is the risk for me, those in my care and, of course, my own family. But I love what I do and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I drive around 100 miles every day caring for people in their own homes. For some, I’m the only person they see or interact with all day.”

Value These highly skilled social care workers are no different than others on the frontline – working with compassion and commitment providing much needed care to those in need. During the pandemic social care workers in nursing homes also sadly sat by the bedside of people in isolation dying from Covid-19. And they are doing all of this in an environment that does not place the same weight or value on their contribution as it does on others within the health system. Many are doing this vital work while still earning a minimum wage and working on zero hours contracts. The Resolution Foundation, an independent think tank, has published a report on social care entitled, What happens after the clapping finishes? It focuses on the current state of the social care workforce in the UK and reports that 55% of care workers in Northern Ireland are paid below the Living Wage. The Future While there will be many heroes who will emerge from this crisis – history will show that social care workers provided much needed care and continuity of service for the most vulnerable in our society. Social Care is not low-skilled, as is commonly portrayed – social care workers protect, support and empower people in their daily lives.

Now is the time to embrace social care as a vital part of our Health and Social Care system. We are setting our sights on a brighter post Covid-19 future and seeking to rebuild our health and social care system. However, before that new horizon dawns there are immediate measures that need to be put in place to support social care. This has been recognised by Minister Swann who, when speaking about the investment needed to support social care, said: “The Covid-19 emergency has shone a harsh light on the long-standing challenges facing social care. I am committed to tackling these issues through investment and reform.”

The national trauma of Covid-19 has the potential to shape and drive new models of care and promote all that is good within social care. We require compassionate leadership at all levels to make this work for the citizens of Northern Ireland. As one person in receipt of care said to me, “Social care matters to me; it should matter to you.” So let’s make that our message. Or, as Brian Kennedy sang in closing last year’s NICON conference, “Put the message in the box; Put the box into the car; Drive the car around the world; Until we get heard”.