A social care leader says it’s time for the Welsh Government to “step up to the plate” to avert a new crisis and fund the sector properly so that frontline staff can be paid what they deserve.
Mary Wimbury, the chief executive of Care Forum Wales, said social care workers in Carmarthenshire had responded heroically to the unprecedented challenge of keeping vulnerable people safe during the pandemic.
But the added pressures caused the spread of the virus had amplified the financial fissures that were already undermining the stability of the sector.
Most independently run care homes and domiciliary care companies were funded via fees paid by local authorities or health boards.
The fees mechanism, she said, had never been fit for purpose since it was introduced more than two decades ago.
In effect they set staff pay at poverty levels that meant providers were only able to pay the basic minimum wage to many care workers.
It had also led to chronic underfunding in the sector and a postcode lottery of fees, with a massive disparity between the amounts paid in different parts of the country and an ever-widening North-South divide.
Now an investigation by the BBC has shown that the effects of the pandemic have contributed to Welsh councils having to make an average saving of more than £20 per head for this financial year.
On top of that, they were still likely to overspend compared to the budgets they have.
Ms Wimbury said: “We are concerned. We went into the pandemic, as the First Minister himself said, with social care in a fragile state.
“During the past 15 months or so we have seen both the value of the social care services and the fact that we need to invest in them.
“We have a manifesto commitment from the Welsh Government that all care workers should be paid at least the Real Living Wage.
“If that’s going to happen there needs to be more money coming from local authorities in the fees that they are paying.
“It’s not even a question of keeping services as they are. It’s actually to make them deliver what the people of Wales need, so we need extra investment.
“For the vast majority of care in Wales the fees are set by local authorities and they set that to a certain extent depending on what their budgets are.
“It’s been a frustration over the years say that Welsh Government are allocating more money for social care but when it gets to discussions with local authorities about fees they are looking at their overall budgets which might have seen allocations go down in other areas as well.
“We’ve seen in some local authorities in England over the past few years fees being frozen or going down.
“As a result of inflationary costs for the care sector, and in particular wages, we have seen the legal minimum wage go up significantly well above the rate of inflation so we’re actually seeing cuts in real terms. We can’t afford for it to get any worse.
“The people who are responsible for squaring the circle of paying what care workers are worth and local authorities who are feeling the squeeze are the Welsh Government.
“Social care is both a profession and a vocation and the wonderful people who work in the sector deserve to be paid accordingly.
“For too many years we have seen the buck being passed between Welsh Government and local authorities.
“I think Welsh Government are going to have to step up to the plate if they want to deliver their manifesto promise about the Real Living Wage.
“They published a White Paper just before the election, talking about having a national framework including fee setting and I think that’s the direction we need to go in.
“Obviously, there is some room for local input in terms of understanding local services but we need to see Welsh Government take that stronger role as they have set out in the White Paper.”