Is it possible to articulate a better future from this COVID emergency?

A group of people standing in a circle smiling. A woman is signing.

Across the world, we are taking extraordinary measures to stop the spread of Covid-19. This crisis has a profound impact on every aspect of our lives. Those that watch the news have spent the last two months acquiring a deeper understanding of the inequalities facing different communities. People are much more emotionally engaged and want to see change. They care more about the welfare of others and what it takes to improve people’s lives – many want a better society to emerge from this crisis.

What matters most is building on these stories and feelings over this period. The paradox of a new normal is that when it comes to winning over hearts and minds, the charities that able to lead from the heart and translate the hope and fears expressed by the public into a compelling narrative for change, and adopt new behaviours of collaboration, will appeal most to the minds of politicians.

This is how we should approach future arguments around reform of social care, improving the quality of lives for disabled people, encouraging more volunteering and how we lead our own charities.

It is possible to articulate a better future.

Improving lives for disabled people

The mantra is that we are ‘all in it together’, This is not the case: disabled people feel at best forgotten and at the back of the queue, and at worse, they feel in the firing line.  Inequalities include inaccessible information, lack of access to supermarkets and online delivery slots, the impact on mental health, and barriers to accessing social care.

There is still not full data on the number coronavirus-related deaths amongst disabled people.  We have heard reports that disabled people won’t require resuscitation should they contract Covid-19. The National Institute for Clinical Excellence was forced to change its guidance to clinicians after fears were expressed that disabled people would not get equal access to critical treatment.  It is completely unacceptable to deny treatment based on a blanket policy towards disabled people.

There are concerns about the Care Act Easements brought in by the Coronavirus Act. There remains a lack of transparency about the easements and what this means.

We have learnt a lot over the last period about how our society neglects disabled people and their families. There is a feeling of disbelief, dismay and growing anger that disabled people are at the bottom of the priority list.

There are many news stories about exhausted, loving families supporting disabled children at home, who are in every sense ‘key workers’.  The public are moved when they learn about families being on the brink of collapse from providing 24/7 around the clock care, and when they hear about the growing number of deaths of disabled people.

Disabled people have fallen through the cracks in government during this pandemic.  We need a much more comprehensive plan to support disabled children, adults and their families, and the front-line staff supporting them.  We have a unique and once in a generation opportunity to address this as the Cabinet Office is charged with delivering a National Strategy for Disabled People. Tackling inequalities and poverty facing disabled people, with a true commitment to ‘levelling up’ their lives, must become the new reality post Covid-19.

Reform of social care

All social care providers have been overwhelmed. The needs of disability providers have been forgotten. Front line workers have not been sufficiently recognised Accessing PPE has been fraught. Getting testing for staff has been a struggle. Deaths amongst social care staff are twice those of NHS workers. It took two months into the pandemic before CQC data revealed the potential impact of COVID-19 on disabled people. It showed a 175% increase in fatalities.  Given many disabled people have underlying health conditions, this is appalling. It is difficult to comprehend why was allowed to happen in the first place, and then to continue.

Pre Covid-19, the social care sector lamented government for not bringing forward much needed reforms of social care.  It called for a sustainable and long term funding for social care, and to bridge the £3.6 billion funding gap by 2025, needed just to stand still.  There is talk about the frailty of the market place. We argue for greater investment in the social care workforce.  However, presenting a long shopping list and adopting rationale and logical arguments have not worked. It has not been enough to create a sense of urgency or to convince Government to introduce reform. The role of social care was unrecognised by the public at large. 

Over the last two months, people have begun to understand and learn more about social care. There is now a sense of understanding that at a time of social distancing, it is our front line social care workers that are still providing the most intimate forms of care.  Many understand the value of what social care workers do. They are deeply touched by their resilience and bravery. They won’t forget this. The public also ‘gets’ that social care staff are highly skilled yet lowly paid.  They are now beginning to question why. 

People are starting to care about social care. They are emotionally on board. We don’t need to devote all our energies in calling for the Green Paper on social care. It is time to form a new alliance between providers, individuals they support, their families with the public in order to make a much more emotionally charged case to government for change.

Encouraging more volunteering

Pre-Covid-19, volunteering participation in the UK had remained largely static over the last ten years. There wasn’t sufficient noise about the value of volunteering on volunteers, charities and the wider society. There was insufficient evidence about the impact of volunteering.

Now, volunteering has become everyone’s business. Very early on in this crisis the NHS asked for volunteers. Within a few days 750,000 people had responded to the call demonstrating the public’s wish volunteer for the NHS. Sadly, this wasn’t matched with a mechanism for matching volunteers to opportunities at a local level.

In response, communities decided literally to do it for themselves. The response has been exceptional. More of us are performing acts of kindness. There is a better understanding of the impact of loneliness on an older person and that an adults with sensory impairments struggle to get to their shops. Amazing efforts have seen kind hearted people cook and deliver meals for older people and disabled people, create activity packs for children, and provide masks for care homes. New WhatsApp groups are set up by neighbours, co-ordinating support for individuals who need help. There is a stronger sense of local community.

This feeling of shared and collective effort to help others in need can be sustained. Communities that have begun to come together in challenging times, can continue to support one another when things get better again. And of course, the more we support each other, the more we can gain ourselves.

If we want mass volunteering to become the new norm, we need to start planning now. This means embracing new forms of volunteering that will be a combination of face to face and virtual post Covid-19.  That will involve providing free laptops and tablets so that marginalised people can contact others and access on line activities that reduce loneliness.

Collaboration with others

Pre-Covid-19, there have been many examples of joint campaigning in the charity sector; however, when it came to working together on service provision, many have been reluctant to adopt this practice. Partnership work was seen to be too hard.

Everyone comes to the table with their own ideas and reaching a workable compromise just takes too much time and skills. Charity leaders don’t train people to run multiple relationships, instead we train people to work in silos. We all talk about partnership working a lot, but shifting this from conversation to reality is something we all need to work on.

Pre-Covid-19, arguments for a greater pooling of staff and resources across charities, was often met with surprise and a response of ‘Why would we do that?’.

This crisis has changed our normal behaviours. We have seen greater collaboration between teams – more fast based decisions, bringing together specialist skills from different teams, moving staff online, supporting people in new and innovative ways. We have also collaboration between charities, often for the first time. We are sharing ideas, information, practice and pooling resources. We are learning so much.

We have a responsibility to share it with others. We need to work together and form partnerships at different levels if we want to provide a truly joined up approach to the individuals we support. We can be so much stronger together when we actively seek opportunities to work with each other. We can have a greater impact and ultimately provide better services to the people we support. Why wouldn’t we do that?

This crisis has captured the hearts of the nation. The public want to help end social injustices and be kinder and more inclusive, whether that is more money for social care and front line workers, better rights and support for disabled people, more volunteers making a meaningful difference, and charities working together to bring about change.  We don’t need to return to ‘business as usual’.  Instead, we have an unique opportunity to present an emotionally charged and publicly backed case for change. We should grab it with both hands.

Richard Kramer

Author: Richard Kramer

Richard Kramer is the Chief Executive Officer of Sense.

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