Why Edinburgh's care crisis suggests we do not meet test of civilised society – Ian Swanson

The test of a civilised society, they say, is how it treats its most vulnerable members.
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Take a look at the current crisis in care of the elderly and you will conclude we are failing that test.

Last week the Evening News reported how people receiving care in their own homes had been sent letters warning them that a shortage of care workers meant they might have to rely on family and friends to look after them.

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The letter prompted an emotional debate at the Edinburgh Integration Joint Board, which oversees health and social care in the Capital.

A carers’ representative whose parents had both received the letter said it felt like things were falling apart.

One of those who helped draft the letter said: “It wasn't intended to shock but the facts are shocking. There was no way of hiding from that.”

And a staff rep on the board said honesty about the situation was “absolutely required” because people had to know what was going on.

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Helen Neilson, 91, faced being left without care, unable to feed or wash herselfHelen Neilson, 91, faced being left without care, unable to feed or wash herself
Helen Neilson, 91, faced being left without care, unable to feed or wash herself
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Three weeks ago, we told how a 91-year-old woman in East Craigs faced being left without any care, unable to feed or wash herself, because the company contracted to provide two carers four times a day for her did not have enough staff. Only a last-minute fix saved the situation.

So how have we reached such a state?

High Covid rates mean a lot of staff are temporarily off work, but many have gone permanently. The stresses of the pandemic have made some decide to switch career.

And, of course, there's Brexit. Many care home workers from EU countries have gone home and the UK's new points-based immigration system does not class most care staff as skilled workers, so they do not qualify to get in.

But underlying all that are the dismal pay and conditions on offer to care workers. It's difficult to recruit people to do the hard work of providing personal care with all that involves when they can earn the same or more for stacking shelves in a supermarket. And it doesn't help if you're only paid for the time you spend in a client's home so that the travelling from one client to another is effectively done in your own time with no pay.

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The shortage of care staff is not a new problem but it has now reached crisis proportions and is threatening services which many of the most vulnerable in society rely on. How can we tell people who cannot feed or wash themselves or get out of bed on their own that there’s just no-one to help them?

The problem also calls into question the strategy behind the plans to close five care homes in Edinburgh, which assumes that in the future elderly people who do not require nursing care would receive care in their own homes.

At the height of the pandemic, there was fulsome praise and gratitude for health and social care staff who put their own lives at risk to carry on caring. But there is little sign so far of that being translated into higher pay and better conditions in recognition of their vital role.

In practical terms, the civilised society test may come down to how we treat those who look after our most vulnerable senior citizens.

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