Edinburgh Council: Emergency alarm service for frail elderly people is a mess and looks set to get even worse – Susan Dalgety

Technological advances have changed the way we live and work, but not always for the better.

Monday, 25th July 2022, 4:55 am
Neil Kinnock warned voters in the 1980s 'not to be ordinary… not to be young… not to fall ill… not to get old' (Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Neil Kinnock warned voters in the 1980s 'not to be ordinary… not to be young… not to fall ill… not to get old' (Picture: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Take the telecare service which many of our frail elderly citizens depend on to live independent lives. Until a few months ago, if someone with the service needed help, they simply pulled one of the cords in their home or used a pendant alarm to summon a support worker.

With teams across the city, the council’s monitoring and response unit could attend an emergency within minutes, so saving lives. But no longer, it seems.

Three months ago, the call-handling part of the service was outsourced to Newham Council, so now when granny falls and can’t get back up again, she depends on a call centre 400 miles away in East London to come to her rescue.

According to the union Unite, this has resulted in chaos. Calls for help are not picked up for hours. The Newham staff will often contact family members first, before asking trained members of Edinburgh’s response unit to attend.

And, presumably because of their scant knowledge of the city’s geography, the London team will regularly send a support worker from the other side of the city instead of the person closest to the situation.

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Strike threat over cuts to emergency alarm services for older people at home

To add to the turmoil, Edinburgh’s Health and Social Care Partnership – which is responsible for the service – has cut the number of response staff on each shift in half.

The union now feels it has no option but to ballot its members about strike action. “It’s our last resort,” explained Mary Alexander, Unite’s deputy regional secretary, adding that the union’s repeated warnings about the impact of the cost-cutting changes have been ignored.

And her colleague Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary in Scotland, argued that the dispute was not just about better conditions for workers, but about “a better service for the most vulnerable people in the city”.

This is the heart of the matter. Technology might make it as easy for calls to be routed to London as it is for them to be picked up in Edinburgh, but in practice the new system appears not to be working, putting lives at risk.

I have some sympathy with the Health and Social Care Partnership. They will be facing ever-tighter budgets and will be desperate to make savings where they can. But at what cost?

And even though I think strike action is a blunt instrument, best left unused, if at all possible, I think on this occasion Unite are right to threaten a walk-out.

Hopefully, it will be enough to get both sides round the table to thrash out a solution on this occasion, but public services face a turbulent few years.

Edinburgh City Council alone must make savings of £63 million next year, and it is hard to see how councillors can avoid cutting core services, such as social care, even further.

On the eve of the 1983 general election, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock warned of the effects of a Tory victory.

“I warn you not to be ordinary… not to be young… not to fall ill… not to get old,” he said. History, it seems, is about to repeat itself.