Fighting for social care amidst a pandemic

29th June 2020

Somerville alumna and CEO of Care provider Journey Elspeth McPherson (1982, Music) discusses the difficulties of providing social care during the Coronavirus pandemic, and how she is battling to maintain provisions for vulnerable adults.

I am Chief Executive of Journey, one of the larger regional social care charities in my home county of Northumberland. I care passionately about social care in the region, having been a ward of court from early childhood in the local area. I also benefitted from the support of the social care system in Tyne & Wear thereafter. Somervillians today will be familiar with this type of pathway to Oxford; I suspect that in the past they would have been very much less so.

Since returning to Northumberland in 2016, I have been involved in shaping and leading the Community Partners Programme to enable best practice in the Department for Work and Pension’s work with disabled adults, alonsgside my day job with Journey.

The charity that I run provides day services to adults with intellectual disability and substantial ‘assessed needs’. These adults have conditions from birth such as Down’s Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, Fragile X Syndrome, cerebral palsy and Prader-Willi Syndrome.

Our 171 Clients across the North East normally join us daily, working with our small but highly-skilled team of Life Skills Coaches to learn how to live independently, work (where possible), manage their health needs and disability, and learn key communication skills. Half of our beneficiaries have Down’s syndrome, and many have co-morbid learning, physical, sensory, behavioural and/or mental health conditions. At the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, we were running five sites. This has now reduced to three.

The initial phase of lockdown saw the collapse of normal social care commissioning across the region, especially with regards to adults with longitudinal assessed needs covered by the Care Act 2014. In one of our commissioned areas, we have seen all adults with assessed needs simply removed from social care systems. This is akin to a GP removing all of the patients from their register as a health crisis breaks.

We have been battling hard since then both to maintain support for families now at crisis point through campaigning and lobbying regional and national MPs, media and infrastructurals e.g. the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and local groups such as Northumberland Community Voluntary Action, Voluntary Organisations Network North East and Newcastle Centre for Voluntary Service.

We were also able to secure assurances from the majority of our seven local authorities that we will be commissioned for the foreseeable future. Those of us providing commissioned (publicly-funded) social care services to the vulnerable cannot, however, apply for furlough.

Across the UK we are seeing the consequential collapse of charities commissioned by the public sector to provide the key health and social care services critical to families in this crisis. These families’ needs have escalated. These charities have been either de-commissioned or will run dry on three months’ unrestricted reserves.

As one of the larger charities with healthy reserves, we have still had to close key services which we cannot assure short- or mid-term futures for, and lay-off staff for whom we cannot apply to furlough. This is hugely saddening. Attracting the right staff into our Sector is not easy and we are acutely aware of the impact of redundancy on local families, one of whom had a COVID death in the week that we entered consultations.

As I close the week and sign our quite wonderful Staff team off for some much-needed respite following our second Board meeting in ten days, our experience will be mirrored in microcosm within community charities right across the UK. I wonder how many ex-Somervillians are similarly working in the Voluntary and Community Sector, battling not only to protect their charity and services, but also campaigning, lobbying and, frankly, fighting commissioners to hang on to services apparently protected by the Care Act, Compact and, most recently, Covid-19 procurement regulations.

After Easter, it’s another week off for me and then the start of more battles. My workplace, Journey, is very well named. My College, helpfully, is one preparing women to do battle.

Please note: this article was written in late April 2020 and dates have therefore been amended to recognise the passage of time.

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