Ministers throw money at the NHS, yet social care is neglected still

Published by The Daily Mail (5th April, 2023)

When Jeremy Hunt was asked about his biggest regret from his six-year stint as health secretary, his response was unequivocal: failing to fix the disintegrating social care system.

That was less than a year ago, when Hunt – who had by then left the Cabinet and become chairman of the Commons health and social care committee – was calling for an additional £7billion a year to salvage the crumbling system while also promoting his book Zero, which offered his prescription for the ills bedevilling the NHS.

In the book, Hunt explained how many citizens suffer as a result of the country’s chronically underfunded care system. Low pay and a lack of career structure, he added, had led to an ‘utterly demoralised’ workforce.

Now, after a remarkable political comeback, he is Chancellor – with power to loosen state purse strings and improve millions of lives by turning his warm words into action.

Instead, his continuing failure to tackle the problem is only highlighting the tragic lack of trust in politicians. For his Government is not even paying out the paltry sums proposed in its half-baked efforts to tackle some of the most acute care problems, despite a staff crisis that has intensified over the past year with an estimated 165,000 vacancies.

In a 2021 White Paper, the Government promised £1.7billion for improving services in the care sector. Yet its latest announcement, clad in fuzzy talk of reform, is worth only about £600million. It halved small sums proposed for investment in staff and has ditched spending to explore innovative new housing models.

No wonder there is furious talk of ‘betrayal’ amid the rising cost of living and an ongoing struggle to retain staff. Sally Warren, policy director at the King’s Fund think-tank, said she had rarely felt such fury over what amounts to a ‘massive retreat from what was already bare minimum first steps’.

Ministers previously postponed wider reforms – a cap on lifetime care costs and widening rules on eligibility – until after the next election. Yet needless to say, they continue to chuck endless cash at the NHS, most recently to appease striking medics demanding higher pay with reports that another £3billion will be pumped into their pockets.

Meanwhile, the care system – staffed by many people earning less than supermarket shelf stackers while a few greedy fat cats fleece the state – has been rejecting 14,000 desperate requests for help every week.

There is talk of better training, certificates for carers and smarter technology. All fine. But decent care depends on dedicated human beings – and they need to be paid properly. This latest setback is hypocritical: ministers won their seats under Boris Johnson promising to fix the system after years of broken promises. But it is also ridiculously short-termist.

In his book, Hunt highlighted the case of one woman who ended up unnecessarily spending seven months in hospital before dying in a care home, detailing how the stress caused her dementia to deteriorate much faster. Incredibly, 101 different professionals looked after her ‘at enormous expense’ – while that hospital bed, at £300 a night, cost six times more than home care support.

This shows the urgency of sorting out social care, especially when there is such a backlog for NHS treatment. Unfortunately, continued failures expose a society that simply does not seem to care about millions of its most vulnerable citizens.

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