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Covid inquiry reveals what many already knew – the elderly are neglected

The government’s attitude towards over-65s has long been evident in its approach to social care.

By Zoë Grünewald

Though the profanities stole the headlines from yesterday’s Covid inquiry evidence session (31 October), something much more significant was exposed.

“I think we should let the old people get it [Covid] and protect the others,” the former chief whip Mark Harper said in December 2020, during that year’s third lockdown, according to diaries from the former chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance. Then the prime minister, Boris Johnson replied: “A lot of my backbenchers agree with that, and I must say I agree with them.”

Vallance had noted that Johnson was “obsessed with older people accepting their fate”, and that many within the Conservative Party thought Covid was “nature’s way of dealing with old people”.

The former adviser to the PM, Dominic Cummings, also gave an explosive testimony, revealing a struggle between himself and Johnson over the former health secretary Matt Hancock’s policies. Cummings had encouraged Johnson to sack Hancock: “Hancock is unfit for this job. The incompetence, the constant lies, the obsession with media bulls**t over doing his job. Still no f***ing serious testing in care homes, his uselessness is still killing God knows how many.”

As shocking as it was to see the callousness top government officials showed towards the elderly during the pandemic, for those in the health and social care sector, this came as little surprise. As Cummings made headlines yesterday, the New Statesman held a more collegiate gathering at its Future of Healthcare Conference. Industry experts, policymakers and academics gathered together in central London to discuss the challenges and opportunities for healthcare in this country, where things had gone wrong and, of course, where they could still go right. Of the many topics, it was the government’s consistent failure to produce an effective, sustainable social care system and the health needs of an ageing population that dominated discussions.

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In England, 2.6 million people aged over 50 are unable to get care, including hundreds of thousands individuals stuck on NHS waiting lists. Back in February, Age UK released a report warning that the crisis in the NHS is “largely a crisis in older people’s preventive care”, and that one in five (21 per cent) over-80s have some unmet need for social care. Unplanned hospital admissions across the UK have been rising, and this is increasing the case for the elderly – half of people arriving at A&E by ambulance are over 65 years old.

[See also: What the AI summit should be focusing on]

Social care is integral to future-proof the crumbling NHS. Yet the government has repeatedly neglected the health needs of older people. Social care was notably absent from the government’s 2023 Budget, and the Department of Health and Social Care cut the £500m allocated for social care workforce improvement by half. Care-home bosses have been met with silence when demanding pay rises for front-line care staff, despite warning that the care system is in an “extremely precarious” position with 152,000 vacant posts in England.

At the New Statesman conference, experts repeated exasperated calls for social care reform, explaining how NHS capability could not be freed up if older people were not receiving adequate care in their communities. Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society called for a “national care service”, explaining it would increase the wellbeing of recipients and reduce pressure on the NHS. The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, has agreed to implement the Fabian Society’s recommendations if Labour takes office, pledging to provide better pay, training and standards for carers across England.

Kay Andrews, former chair of the House of Lords Adult Social Care Committee, called for the creation of a “social care commissioner”, pointing to a report that her committee had published calling for adult social care to become “a national imperative”. She also stated that the government’s commitment thus far “falls sadly short of providing a concrete and fully resourced programme of change”.

Andrews explained that social care reform doesn’t just help the NHS but allow older people to live a “gloriously ordinary life”. As stated in the report she referred to: “Creating a sustainable adult social care system will come with significant benefits, including to reducing pressure on the NHS; but we argue that reforming social care should happen first and foremost to enable both individuals who draw on care and support and unpaid carers to thrive, and to promote greater humanity, equality and independence.”

Meanwhile, in a different corner of London, WhatsApp messages sent in October 2020 revealed a prime minister with an entirely different attitude. “Hardly anyone under 60 goes into hospital (4 per cent) and of those virtually all survive,” Johnson wrote to his former communications director, Lee Cain. “And I no longer buy all this NHS overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate. There are max 3m in this country over 80.”

Yesterday’s revelations suggest that the attitudes of some governing figures towards the elderly, whether due to ignorance or indifference, are deeply ingrained. The NHS needs lasting and practical changes to handle the challenges of an ageing population. The prospect of sustainable social care reform will remain a distant prospect until elderly people are viewed with respect, instead of disdain.

[See also: How would a Labour government fix the NHS?]

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