The government has been urged to produce a social care workforce strategy ‘as soon as possible’.
The call comes from former health secretary and government advisor Patricia Hewitt as part of her newly published review into England’s new integrated care systems (ICSs).
Within her report, Ms Hewitt has stressed that in order to make ICSs ‘a reality’, action needs to be taken to ‘pull down some of the barriers’ within primary care, social care and the way in which health and care staff are trained.
A total of 42 ICSs were established across England on a statutory basis on 1 July 2022. They work as partnerships of organisations across local government, social care, the NHS, community and voluntary services, to help plan and deliver joined up health and care services.
The 89-page report, published on Tuesday 4 April, highlights the ‘difference’ these systems are making, while also setting out ‘what needs to happen next’.
Ms Hewitt said that ICSs ‘represent the best opportunity in a generation for a transformation in our health and care system’ and ‘provide the opportunity to break out of organisational siloes’.
However, she stressed that for health and social care to be ‘effectively integrated and delivered at ICS level’, social care must be ‘a national priority for investment and workforce development’.
A government long-term workforce plan for the NHS in England is due to be published imminently and, therefore, Ms Hewitt recommended the creation of a ‘complementary strategy’ for the social care workforce.
She said the government should do so ‘as soon as possible’ and that it should ‘set the strategic direction for a more integrated health and social care workforce’.
‘This strategy can then support local authorities, who have responsibility for adult social care provision, and ICSs, who will play an increasingly key role in joined up workforce planning,’ she said in her report.
Joint training for social care and NHS staff, practical support for more career pathways, and longer-term investment in the social care workforce was also suggested within the report.
However, the publication of the Hewitt Review also coincides with concerns that the government has halved funding for the adult social care workforce. From the £500m promised in 2021, only £250m will now be made available to support workforce development. But the government has refuted claims the money available has been halved and has suggested more funding could be allocated to the social care workforce.
Professor Vic Rayner, chief executive of the National Care Forum, was concerned about the government’s funding plans for the social care workforce, especially as the Hewitt Review recommended the development of a workforce plan for the sector.
The Hewitt Review also made a number of other recommendations to support the development of the ICS system.
For example, Ms Hewitt said there must be a shift from focusing on illness, to promoting health and providing preventative care in order to reduce pressure on the healthcare system.
This, the review said, should see the share of the total NHS budgets at ICS level used for prevention increase by 1% over the next five years.
These changes should also be supported by an increased use of data and digital technology, which Ms Hewitt claimed would reduce the workload for nurses in primary care.
Ms Hewitt said it was ‘essential that we level up basic digital infrastructure in all parts of the system, instead of expecting nurses, healthcare assistants and care workers looking after people with complex conditions and multiple needs to write down essential information on paper and then spend precious time going back to the office to input the data manually’.
‘The skills needed to deliver data and digital transformation require a professional and highly skilled workforce at the system and provider level,’ she added.
Responding to the review’s recommendations, Patricia Hewitt, RCN director for England said: ‘Ultimately this report highlights the importance of investing in the workforce – including training for staff and a strategy for the social care workforce.
‘But nothing will be achieved without funding and investment from government.
‘The bottom line is clear and has been highlighted again and again – invest in the workforce.
‘Yet we are still waiting to see the long-promised workforce plan to recruit and retain the nursing staff needed for safe patient care. Without it, our NHS will remain in crisis while patients suffer.’
Meanwhile, chief executive of the Queen’s Nursing Institute Dr Crystal Oldman, welcomed the review for ‘taking a very broad perspective of the challenges and opportunities ahead for integrated care systems in health and social care’.
She highlighted its reference to the advantages of digital systems and said: ‘It is right to acknowledge that nurses and other staff do not have time to duplicate data capture in paper and on computer software systems.’
Dr Oldman also pointed to a recent report from the QNI, published in February 2023, which showed ‘many’ nurses are ‘still being failed by the digital systems in use in health and care organisations’.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘Integrated care systems are an important part of the government’s plan to deliver more joined up and effective health and care services and to cut waiting times for patients, one of the Prime Minister’s key priorities for 2023.
‘Ministers will review recommendations of this report in due course.’