The shockingly high levels of deaths in our care homes appears to be one of the biggest scandals of the coronavirus pandemic in the UK. A comprehensive and thorough inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic will no doubt come as soon as some sense of normality can be restored. However, any inquiry must also focus on the conditions under which many care homes companies were managed – and I use that term very loosely.
The business model many care homes operated under was that of excess profiteering, cost-cutting, loading the companies up with debt and using that money to pay excess interest rates and heavy dividends – letting the taxpayer pick up the tab when all failed.
In 2012, I warned about the takeover of care home firm Four Seasons by private equity. I warned the that private equity firms were in it for a quick buck rather than to ensure the best possible standards of care for vulnerable people in society.
Very sadly, but very predictably, in 2015 it emerged that Four Seasons was experiencing financial problems and sitting on £500m worth of debt (much of it in offshore tax havens). Sadly the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt did nothing to sort out the unsustainable business models that they had.
I urged him to get a grip and highlighted their unsustainable business model, which relied on government and hard-pressed local councils bailing them out. Unfortunately, he did nothing to prevent predatory venture capitalists with unsound business models from repeatedly taking over our care homes. I have to admit it is somewhat grating to hear him criticise the government over the pandemic while taking absolutely zero responsibility for contributing to the conditions in which we now find ourselves.
We are seeing the devastating consequences of this dogmatic Thatcherism – prioritising obscene profits over the care of vulnerable people – which has been allowed to take place. At the start of the crisis, the GMB union was pointing this out, saying that if care workers “become ill they either have to try and support their families on poverty sick pay – or turn up to work ill which could be a death sentence for residents”.
UNISON went even further, saying: “Some tell us their employers are doing the right thing, but many care workers are being put in danger because what they’re being told is plain wrong. They feel helpless because they’re often on low pay and are left to choose between risking their health or paying their bills.” Many care staff faced a dilemma: risk their own destitution, or risk becoming infected and infecting their own families.
Aside from the inquiry into how the country performed during this crisis, major change to the care system is sorely needed – and an approach that prioritises the safety of those in care homes and the staff tasked with treating them. This isn’t even to say the private sector should be completely taken out of the sector, but that the government should regulate carefully to ensure the public doesn’t have to bail out the management failures and that this predatory behaviour is not putting the safety of staff at risk.
The Tory government – and their Lib Dem coalition allies, lest it be forgotten – agreed to this set-up due to their dogmatic obsession that the private sector was always a better and more efficient provider than the state and that short-term cheapest was always best. They have been proven wrong.