Why warnings over care homes crisis should be heeded

The NHS could be forced to find beds for 37,000 nursing home patients at a cost of £3 billion a year because of a "potentially fatal crisis" in the care sector, a new report warned on Wednesday.

This warning is stark and the timing is deliberate. Coming just two weeks ahead of the Government’s Spending Review, this report is designed to pile the pressure on the Government’s money man, George Osborne.

At stake, it claims, is the care of hundreds of thousands of people - mostly frail old people who have lived good, independent lives and now can’t manage without support, and who deserve and expect that help to be available.

Video report by ITV News social affairs editor Penny Marshall:

“The care home sector is heading for a bigger crisis than the steel industry,” Martin Green the head of Care England, the trade body for the Care Home told ITV News, predicting that unless more money is pumped into the system, half of Britain’s care homes could go bust.

If they do it will be the NHS which will pick up the pieces - and the patients - heaping even more financial pressure on our hospitals, and stranding people who don't need to be there in expensive hospital beds.

And most at risk will be homes in the North of England. As this crisis develops, according to industry insiders, there will be an increasing North South Divide, a two tier system: The North West, where about 70% of social care beds are paid for by local authorities for example, will be much harder hit than the South where a larger proportion of care is privately funded and providers can therefore charge more to meet their costs.

As Social Affairs Editor I regularly receive “warnings” about impending financial disaster. They don’t usually get my attention. News is about what HAS happened, not about what might happen.

But in my judgement, the warnings in this report should be heeded.

Last month I made a documentary about home care for ITV, which faces similar strains and pressures.

And cracks are beginning to show in the nursing home industry which suggest Martin and his colleagues are not crying wolf.

There are problems with contracts as companies withdraw from those they deem financially unviable - or not bidding for new ones at all.

The sector is nervous, very nervous. Analysts’ figures show that for the first time the number of available beds in nursing homes has fallen by 3,000 (from October 2014 to March 2015) as a result of closures.

And residents in the 470 homes and specialist centres run by the UK’s leading provider, Four Seasons, face uncertainty about their future. The company has just issued warnings about its financial sustainability. It’s the UK's largest care home provider and is thought to be considering selling scores of its properties as it plans to trim its budget. Watch this space.

But trouble at Four Seasons is symptomatic of sector wide pressures: pressures which have been building for decades and which successive Governments have failed to address. Pressures which have just been exacerbated by the introduction of the new National Living Wage by this Government . It’s estimated that the NLW alone will push costs up another £1 billion over three years at a time when demand is rising and local authority budgets are falling.

All eyes will be on the Chancellor for the Government’s Spending Review. Credit: PA

The trouble is that burnt into the national consciousness is the “sanctity” of NHS spending which is politically untouchable. But “Social Care” spending has no such resonance and has had neither the political attention it deserves, nor the political honesty it requires.

But failure to tackle social care will only weaken the NHS and on thousands of our elderly who deserve better. All eyes on the Chancellor on the 25th.