Johnathan Gardner: The Future of Social Care

Published: 18/12/2023

Our CEO Jonathan Gardner opens up about the future of social care post-party conferences.

Jonathan Gardner, chief executive of Bluebird Care UK and Ireland, asks what can the political party conferences tell us about the future of social care?

With a General Election on the horizon, eyes were locked on this year’s annual party conferences to see what upcoming manifestos might promise for social care.

Whoever forms our next government will need to act quickly to address some of the short-term crises our sector faces. From a demand and supply imbalance to a public funding shortfall, to recruitment and retention pressures, there is no shortage of issues to focus on – and that’s before considering the need for a long-term plan for sustainability and growth.

There were some encouraging common themes across the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party conferences, including the need to reduce reliance on hospitals; the opportunities of digital innovation and AI; and the need for greater support for the workforce.

At party conference fringe events, it was also encouraging to hear NHS voices making the case for investment in social care. Head of NHS Confederation Matthew Taylor, at a Labour Party fringe event, called it “the number one priority” and said that “every acute leader recognised that investment in social care is the long-term solution”.

However, and despite its universal impact, social care has sadly never been a vote winner. If people were expecting this year’s party conferences to be the moment political leaders stood up and made bold commitments about the tricky subject of reforming care funding, they would have been disappointed.

The Liberal Democrats gave the firmest funding commitment, pledging £5 billion per year to introduce free personal care in England, in line with the Scottish model. This level of detail is welcomed, but directing funds towards free personal care would be divisive – not least given the need to fund expanded access to care to the estimated 1.6 million people aged 65 and over with unmet care needs.

Labour is clear on their commitment to the workforce and, like many providers, I welcome the notion of a fair pay deal that would allow premium employers to go above and beyond to attract top tier employees. However, Labour’s conference plans didn’t shed any further light on what might come next in their 10-year plan to form a National Care Service – which, it has been suggested in a conversation with a Labour shadow treasury minister, would be a second term parliamentary issue if progressed. Headlines from the Labour party conference of course asked after their likelihood to follow through on the plan at all.

The scrapping of HS2 was the headline grabbing moment from the Conservative Party Conference, but this was not the only notable change of course in the past year. T-Levels, a technical-based qualification in England, will be phased out in only their second year of existence, including the promising health and social care qualification. Likewise, overseas visas, upheld as the pinnacle of solving the recruitment crisis, are becoming increasingly restricted and costly due to Home Office policy. These policy u-turns do little to boost reassurance and stability in our sector, which still awaits an alternative funding plan for reform since the social care levy was reversed a year ago.

The need to bolster community-based care is perhaps more urgent than I have known it in my 20 years of working in community healthcare – for the benefit of service users, carers, staff across the system, and ultimately cost savings. Each political party has (at times loosely) acknowledged this need, but none have truly demonstrated how they would work towards building the infrastructure and funding needed to support this shift.

So, while positive headlines emerge in relation to the need to move away from reliance on hospitals, now that party conferences have wrapped it is clear that providers must continue to lead the way in driving innovation, integration, and quality across the sector.

We can do this as individual providers, and we can do it well. But what we cannot do is implement the systematic, long-term consistency that will bring much needed stability and sustainability to our sector. That will require prospective governments to step up and risk politically tricky conversations to position social care as a major priority for the country now and in the near future.