Why social care is vital to the future of the NHS

2 June 2015

Alice Mitchell-Pyeby Alice Mitchell-Pye

We’re hearing a lot today about the government’s £8 billion investment in the NHS. This is great news given the pressures the health service is facing. However, if social care goes without similar additional investment in this parliament, it’s only half a solution — a temporary sticking plaster.

The NHS was a key issue in the recent general election, but social care was rarely mentioned by politicians. This fits a pattern: the health budget was ring fenced throughout the last parliament, while the Association for Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) has estimated that councils delivering social care have been forced to make savings to adult social care budgets totalling £3.53bn following significant reductions in funding for local government since 2010.

Over a million reasons

This seems unfair and illogical given that social care supports over a million people in England to live independently. It relieves pressure on the health service and helps people participate fully in society and contribute economically. It is a lifeline for thousands of people, supporting them with the basic everyday tasks like eating, washing and dressing which many of us take for granted. It helps them to stay connected with friends and family.

However, this inequality between health and social care is more than unfair — it is also unsustainable. The role of social care is vital to the future of the NHS.

An unsustainable NHS

With a rapidly ageing population and more people living with multiple long-term conditions than ever before, we have to be able to support people outside of hospital in their local communities. Without an effective social care system supporting people to stay healthier for longer and leave hospital sooner after treatment, the NHS cannot function sustainably in the long term.

This will be detrimental for people who need support. Despite this huge increase in demand, local councils and providers continue to be asked to do more with less money than ever before. The results of this are already clear. Hundreds of thousands of people are without the care they need — many isolated and facing crisis. Without swift action, this crisis will continue to worsen and it will be the NHS that is left to pick up the pieces.

Spending falling while needs are rising

The scale of this challenge is enormous. Figures from ADASS show, since 2010, spending on adult social care has fallen by 12% in real terms at a time when the number of people looking for support has increased by 14%. The Local Government Association predicts a funding gap in social care of £4.3bn by 2020.

Geniune integration is essential

But there is still hope. The Care Act, which came into force in April, promises real progress in supporting people to live independently in the way they choose. But the cost of putting it into practice may prove unaffordable for some local authorities, and there is a real danger that this forward-thinking vision for care will not become a reality.

That’s why genuine integration of health and social care is essential to ensure both services can support each other and focus on what people really need. To make this happen central government must empower local government to take on a greater role and give it the vital extra funding it needs to do this.

If the government fails to act decisively and the imbalance in funding across the two systems continues, there is a real danger that, despite moves towards greater integration, social care will remain the junior partner of health and the system will reach breaking point.

Alice Mitchell-Pye is Policy and Campaigns Officer (Operations) at Leonard Cheshire Disability.

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