Seven in ten of those questioned by the Rural Services Network, the membership body for England’s non-urban local authorities, warned that social care workers in their local authority area were having to travel at least half an hour by car to access their nearest COVID-19 testing facility, with nearly a quarter having to travel up to an hour. Only 15% reported having access to the closest site in less than a half an hour drive.
Nearly a quarter of England’s rural population is aged 65 or over, with this group particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and even in normal times in higher demand of social care services. Yet the consultation, which examined the experiences of local authority officers or elected members in 20 predominantly rural councils across England, identified critical challenges in delivering social care services during the pandemic, with four in five rural social care workers lacking adequate access to COVID-19 testing. The same proportion (81%) said that social care service users in their area had faced similar access problems.
As seen across England, there were specific challenges over access to sufficient PPE for rural care workers (three quarters struggled with this), while two thirds reported that uncertainty over Government guidance was a specific challenge. Nearly three quarters of councils (73%) said that a lack of COVID-19 testing for rural social care service users was a challenge.
Prior research has found that less public funding is directed towards rural residents than in urban areas, despite the higher cost of providing social care services in more remote towns and villages. In 2020/21, the average predominantly urban resident will attract £40 per head in Improved Better Care Funding, £7 per head more than rural residents per head (£33).
With costs spiralling following the pandemic, the consultation made clear that if the Government does not plug the growing hole in social care budgets, care homes or related services in rural areas may struggle to survive. Nearly half of those consulted (46%) anticipate seeing residential care homes in rural areas closing over the next year on current funding levels. A quarter also said they anticipate seeing the reduction of social care services for those living in their own homes in rural areas and 58% said they were more worried about their local authority’s ability to deliver social care services to the standard needed over the next year following the pandemic.
Asked to elaborate, one consultee noted they expect to see “a reduction in providers’ availability and capacity across both care home and home care markets” and “a reduction in day care opportunities”. Another commented that “residential care, home care, and supported housing are all vulnerable”. While there was some optimism about being able to recruit new social care staff to rural vacancies given job losses in other sectors, 38% reported feeling worried about the ability to recruit sufficient social care staff in the next year.
Asked about the amount of funding increase per head needed to put rural social care provision on a sustainable footing, 44% said they needed an increase of between 11 and 20%, while 28% said they required up to 30% more money, and a fifth needed up to 50% more per head to enable them to continue to deliver adequate social care.
Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network, said:
“The findings of this survey are very worrying. Government, as a matter of extreme urgency, should complete its Fair Funding Review and implement it for 2021/22. This is essential to help level-up the provision of social care services in rural areas, taking full account of their delivery cost in more sparsely populated areas. This would also enable improved or more consistent engagement with and commissioning of ‘low level’ support services for vulnerable rural residents, which are typically delivered locally by voluntary and community sector organisations.
“In the meantime, additional government funding for rural councils to meet service needs and the costs associated with the pandemic is urgently needed if the worries expressed in this survey are to be countered.”