STAFF shortages in the health and care sector are pushing the NHS to breaking point – and they are partly the result of a ‘reckless’ and ‘cynical’ decision by the UK government to push through a hard Brexit in the middle of a pandemic.
Around one in five beds in Scotland’s major hospitals are taken up by elderly people who could go out – except they have nowhere to go. One in six beds in Scottish care homes is currently empty – but homes cannot accommodate more patients due to understaffing due to a combination of Brexit and Covid.
Staff shortages are even worse in the social care sector helping people at home – and that means vulnerable people are more likely to need emergency help. Private care providers refer patients to councils because they cannot meet needs, but councils are also grappling with shortages.
“There is a gender dimension to this. The impact of the shortage of staff in the care sector will be even more devastating than the shortage of truck drivers this winter. But we don’t hear much about it. I suspect it’s because it’s a predominantly female workforce. They are ‘invisible women’ and we only appreciate them when they are not around,” said Karen Hedge, national director of Scottish Care.
Hedge said the capacity of care homes across Scotland was around 86 per cent, but although rooms were empty the homes could not accept new residents. “There is a waiting list for places in care homes, but homes cannot accept people when they do not have the staff to provide an acceptable level of care.
“The system is out of balance. The first element is social protection – which allows people to stay active and at home longer. If this does not happen, there is an increase in emergency treatment – both for these vulnerable people and for unpaid carers whose health is affected.
Before Brexit, she said, between 6% and 9% of nurses, assistants and an unknown number of care home support workers were EU citizens. Many have now left because of Brexit.
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Hedge continued, “These occupations should have been given protected status. They were highly qualified and experienced staff that we could not afford to lose. In many cases, two or three members of the same family worked in the same nursing home. It proved impossible to replace them in most cases. ”
Hedge said the added burden for those who remained in the sector throughout Covid was taking its toll. A report released earlier this month shows that 90% of suppliers are struggling to recruit and retain staff. Almost half say they cannot continue to provide care at the current level.
A nurse who did not want to be named said: “Staff shortages in the care sector affect us massively. Between a fifth and a quarter of the beds in our hospital are now occupied by elderly people who must be released. They can’t be because they have nowhere to go.
“We are very understaffed. We miss our European nurses. We had Spanish, Italian and Polish nurses. They have added to the diversity and resilience of our workforce. We cannot replace them.
She said many nurses who had worked throughout the pandemic were also suffering from stress and burnout: “At first there were people coming out of the woodwork to help us, but we don’t have them this time. round. Each shift is short by several nurses. I don’t know what will happen. There is talk of opening field hospitals, but where are we going to find staff? I don’t know where this will end. It’s very scary.
She also added that one of the reasons for the ambulance crisis is that paramedics have to line up at A&E to discharge patients.
John Mooney, social services manager for Unison in Scotland, said: “All employers are fishing in the same pond for staff. But the other side of the coin is that the lives of our members are very difficult.
“The pay rates are a disgrace. But there’s more than that – they don’t have a say at work, they don’t have a voice. They are simply told that they have to do more. They are constantly fighting fires.
“The government has not taken the sector’s problems seriously. He’s been out of sight, out of mind. This crisis has been building for years. Persistent staffing issues have been compounded by the pandemic and Brexit.
MSP Gillian Mackay (above), spokesperson for health and social care for the Scottish Greens, said: ‘The impact of staff shortages in the health sector is devastating. Pushing through a hard Brexit in the midst of a pandemic was reckless and cynical. Once again we see the people of Scotland suffering because of decisions made by a Conservative government that we did not vote for.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We continue to work with health and social care partnerships to provide support around the current challenges facing the sector. We have allocated an additional £380 million to health boards to help cover pandemic-related costs. This is on top of the £1.7billion already provided to health boards and health and social care partnerships last year.