Despite all the panic in government and at the petrol station forecourt, there is another urgent question: what about the care homes? The government is hastily attempting to give three-month visas to 5,000 foreign truck drivers to “save Christmas”. It is also allowing 5,000 visas for farm workers to gather in the winter harvest. But, in the face of widespread personnel shortages, the care home sector is to get no relief at all.
There are already 100,000 staff vacancies in the care home sector, yet all the health ministry can say is that there will “always be enough staff with the right skills to deliver high quality care”. This is state-sponsored employment chaos.
The truck drivers’ visas are simply a cynical U-turn from ministers who promised to “stop immigration” and now find that some immigrants are more important than others. (Whether EU drivers will return to the UK so swiftly is another question altogether.) Labour markets are complex. Britain’s is being regulated by Whitehall officials with Leninist fantasies about the supply and demand for particular jobs, doling out visas on the basis of politics, not economics. Why truck drivers not carers? We can guess.
From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, it was clear that the government favoured the NHS over care homes (which it was less directly responsible for). An appalling price was paid as elderly people were allowed to go from the former to the latter, without any Covid testing, and died in their thousands. While care homes languished, desperate for money and help at the height of the pandemic, the government built the NHS seven Nightingale “field hospitals” at cost of £530m, only for them to be left sitting empty.
Now ministers are penalising social care even further. Care homes in England fear they will have to sack any staff not vaccinated against Covid by the early November deadline. NHS staff are excused, even in Covid wards. Although 93 per cent of care staff have been vaccinated, a hardcore still refuse, for reasons varying from pregnancy to cultural aversion.
The sackings would be catastrophic. While it is the young, not the old, who are now primarily at pandemic risk, the blanket ban is likely to mean that thousands of care staff – possibly as many as 70,000 – will have to be dismissed. Many will reportedly transfer to the NHS, in what looks suspiciously like a straightforward poaching. According to the Times, “sixteen local authorities could lose more than a tenth of their [care] staff”.
The government tells care employers to pay their workers higher wages to attract them within the UK. But this is a service industry that has spent decades relying on overseas carers. Brexit has already stifled the flow of workers from the EU, and there is no Treasury money to speedily replace them with more expensive, home-based staff.
The fault does not lie with Brexit as such, given the various ways the UK’s exit from the EU could have been negotiated: it lies with Boris Johnson’s personal decision at the same time to leave Europe’s single labour market. He has cut Britain off from decades of access to that sophisticated market, without so much as an inquiry into the cost. Other European nations can recruit from across the continent to relieve the strains of Covid. Britain has withdrawn behind a protectionist barrier. The Tory party under Margaret Thatcher used to believe in open markets. All we know of the present one is that it does not believe in carers.