Mar 20

Our CEO Oonagh Smyth reflects on how the sector has stepped up to meet the COVID-19 crisis

Posted: 23 March 2020

When I was offered the job as Skills for Care CEO, none of the scenarios I imagined was being in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis. The world has changed in the two weeks since I have been in Skills for Care. Hearing at home and abroad about the deaths and the human impact is tragic, but I’ve been moved by the way our sector has stepped up.

While we are all rightly focusing on dealing with the immediate crisis, I think already we can see the seeds of long-term changes in how adult social care is perceived.

Social Care is vital – an unsung hero

Anyone who works in our sector is aware of the vital role that our people play day in and day out across the country. Employers are proud of the professionalism and dedication of their 1.49 million care staff. They know, despite the protective measures put in place, that there is risk in what they do, yet whilst many of us are advised to walk away from danger they are still prepared to go on using their skills and knowledge to make sure the people they work with can access the support they need.

Now, social care is at the forefront of our response to COVID-19, as it must be. The importance of social care colleagues has been recognised by the government by the inclusion of social care workers on the list of critical workers whose children could still attend schools.

Our communities will need the dedication of social care colleagues more than ever. We already have a vacancy rate of 7.8% and that is likely to increase while people self-isolate, care for their families or become ill themselves.

To support the national containment effort at Skills for Care we have been:
  • looking at how we support colleagues in Skills for Care who are qualified nurses and social workers who are thinking about returning to the front line.
  • speaking to employers who have been passing on their concerns about how the virus will impact, and offering suggestions about what the government can do to help them. 
  • using all our communication channels to pass on the latest advice from the government, and highlight our free online resources, so employers can start planning their response before the crisis reaches its peak.
  • we have been working with DHSC to plan how we support employers and the workforce in the most impactful and useful way - thinking about our role in fast-tracked training, online training or how we can help employers find new people if their staff become ill or have to self-isolate.

Despite all the pressures we need employers to keep talking to us. We are listening, and we are passing what we hear onto the Department of Health and Social Care. Feedback from the frontline will really inform and shape thinking about what they need to make sure we can really support those who support vulnerable people in our communities. We need to track where people are, what they are experiencing, and we need to be fleet of foot in responding.

We cannot work alone

I have watched sectoral leadership in action – and it is inspirational. Colleagues across health and social care, working together to protect the public, to protect existing colleagues and to get people into the social care and health sectors and trained to keep the system delivering the support that it needs to deliver. We must keep talking, challenging each other, listening.

Let’s make social care a sung rather than unsung hero

After any significant crisis, significant societal changes generally result. At the end of this crisis there is little doubt that people will understand, and value, the importance of a resilient social care system much more.

Social care will become a sung, rather than unsung, hero. 

People will better understand how deeply skilled and vital a well-trained social care workforce is. I am watching community responses which are heartening, but It is also showing that voluntary responses can never in themselves be enough. We need our skilled professionals, driven by core values, offering personalised support for people to live in the community. 

People will better understand the importance of the social element of social care. Large parts of the community self-isolating and reducing connections is shining a light on the fact that we are social animals – we need the interaction; we need to be and feel part of our communities. I hope that we remember this after this crisis, and we value the social as much as the care in social care. I hope this means we better support people to keep and build connections in their communities, and value how important regular face to face contact is to people. I am always struck by this each time I hear Skills for Care Fellow Clenton Farquharson say people want a life and not a service. 

Team work

Like any employer my number one priority has been the health and well-being of the people who work for us. I would like to pay tribute to the Skills for Care team who have been so driven, so creative and responsive, thinking quickly about how we can support the sector’s 18,200 organisations who offer care and support services. I feel privileged to have the team that I have and want to thank them.

Keep up to date with our 'COVID-19' page.