Can drama “Help” social care?

Jason Lowther

Photo credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z2ufAl2lko

Fresh from winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Banff Rockie Awards on Monday, Channel Four’s drama Help was yesterday nominated for Best Drama in the Edinburgh TV awards, with its lead actor Jodie Cromer also nominated for Best Actor.  The drama was one of the most watched on the channel, bringing to millions of viewers the plight of care homes and their residents during the pandemic.  Whilst the Help storyline is fictional, it is based on hard and devastating facts.

In my view, Help could be criticised for its farfetched ending and sometimes unsympathetic rendering of the care home manager, however its characterisation of care home staff and residents is both caring and revealing.  Clearly emotionally affected researching the programme, writer Jack Thorn said: “hearing the stories of those at the frontline, having people break down in tears on zoom in front of us has been incredibly moving and galling”.   

My two favourite parts of the programme (no spoilers) are the endless recorded message of a hopelessly over-run “NHS 111” call centre in the background for several minutes, and Jodie Cromer’s wrenching speech to camera (1:34 on the video) demanding “…underlying health conditions, eh?  When did all lives stop being worth the same?”  The programme ends highlighting some stunning research findings: 40% of Covid deaths in the early pandemic (from March to June 2020) were in care homes; the average wage of a care home worker is £8.50 per hour; whilst government provided 80% of PPE needs for the NHS, it only met 10% of adult social care’s needs. 

This last claim is based on the National Audit Office analysis published in November 2020, which found that the adult social care sector received approximately 331 million items of PPE from central government between March and July (10% of their estimated need) whereas NHS trusts received 1,900 million items sent to NHS trusts (80% of estimated need).  Whilst both fell significantly short of what was required, there is an apparent imbalance here.  Data collected by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) showed that, throughout April and May 2020, more than a fifth of domiciliary care providers had no more than a week’s supply of PPE. 

This situation was well known to the Secretary of State, not least because the LGA and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services wrote stating “we continue to receive daily reports from colleagues that essential supplies are not getting through to the social care front-line. Furthermore, national reporting that equipment has been delivered to providers on the CQC-registered list does not tally with colleagues’ experience on the ground”.  Nevertheless, in a scene included in Help, during a Downing Street press conference on 15 May, 2020, Mr Hancock said: “right from the start, it’s been clear that this horrible virus affects older people most. So right from the start, we’ve tried to throw a protective ring around our care homes”, repeating in the House of Commons on 18 May that “we absolutely did throw a protective ring around social care”. 

Understanding the human costs of these central government failures is difficult, with the effects on staff, residents and their family impossible to measure objectively.  Help does a good job in illustrating some of the pressures on care staff and the pain of relatives unable to visit dying residents, made all the more poignant now that we know some of the behaviour during the pandemic of senior central government actors such as Hancock’s affair and Johnson’s multiple parties forensically examined in Sue Gray’s recent report

Perhaps the most basic measure is in human lives.  Last year researchers used the national death registry of all adult (aged ≥18 years) deaths in England and Wales between January 1, 2014, and June 30, 2020 to compare daily deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic against the expected daily deaths.  They estimated that during the early pandemic, about 26,000 excess deaths (almost half of the total excess deaths) occurred in care homes and hospices.  This is likely to be an underestimate since early in the pandemic, testing of suspected cases was available only in the hospital, whereas routine testing of staff and residents in care homes was not implemented until May 2020.

The latest ONS statistics, issued in February 2022, suggest that since the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, there have been over 274,000 deaths of care home residents (wherever the death occurred) registered in England and Wales; of these, 45,632 involved COVID-19 accounting for 17% of all deaths of care home residents. 

Intriguingly, The Lancet reported in March that “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on the mortality of care home residents in England compared to older residents of private homes, but only in the first wave. This may be explained by a degree of acquired immunity, improved protective measures or changes in the underlying frailty of the populations.” Meanwhile, last month the Care Quality Commission finally published data on deaths in each care home during the first year of the pandemic (April 2020 to March 2021).

Whatever the precise figures, it’s clear that adult social care residents and staff were badly let down by central government, far from the Secretary of State’s “protective ring” narrative. This despite the best efforts of care managers, local commissioners and councils discussed in Luke Bradbury’s blog here last week.  Help does a fantastic job of showing the impact of these critical central failures – and recognising the incredible work care staff did in such difficult circumstances with so little financial reward.

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