Retired carers return to work amid Covid crisis

Norfolk County Council has a Winter Plan for social care.

Some 40 to 50 retired social care workers have come forwards following a 'call to arms' from the county council. - Credit: PA

Dozens of retired carers have returned to their jobs in response to a 'call to arms' to stop the care system buckling under the pressures caused by Covid and staff shortages.

Norfolk County Council said that between 40 and 50 people who had retired from working in the sector had signed up to help, after the authority launched an appeal.

The county's health and care system - like others across the country - is struggling this winter with a higher than usual number of people requiring ambulance services and urgent care. There are also challenges with discharging patients who are well enough to leave hospital, while rising staff sickness has worsened the workload.

The pressure culminated this week when the Norfolk and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) declared a “critical incident”.

These are declared when staff experience disruption so severe that it “results in the organisation temporarily or permanently losing its ability to deliver critical services”.

File photo of a hospital ward

The Norfolk and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) this week declared a 'critical incident' for Norfolk's health and care system. - Credit: Peter Byrne / PA Wire

Craig Chalmers, director of adult social work at Norfolk County Council, said his department had issued the “call to arms” to its retired staff in an effort to meet a  demand which had outstripped supply. 

“It would be fair to say we’ve been preparing for this for a while,” said Mr Chalmers, who added that although staff absences caused by Covid did not appear to be impacting his staff to the same degree as in hospitals, he expected the numbers to catch up. 

“We’ve moved staff out of what we might term ‘back-office’ tasks and we've put them into frontline positions,” he added.

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“We did a call to 'arms' to our retired staff… We’ve had 40, 50 people [come forward]. 

“We’ve had more who - when they’ve realised that we might want them to assist doing personal care - have chosen that that might not be the right thing, but then we’ve tried to manoeuvre them into, say, some back-office tasks, such as answering the phone.”

Mr Chalmers said “previous experience with Covid has been slightly undone by just the transmissibility of Omicron, and I think that in itself creates issues. 

Shops will reopen as part of the post-lockdown Covid Winter Plan. Picture: PA Images

Mr Chalmers said “previous experience with Covid has been slightly undone by just the transmissibility of Omicron". - Credit: PA

“You’re seeing outbreaks in care homes, you’re seeing outbreaks in schooling, and that will increase because that is what this virus does, it repeats itself extremely effectively. 

“The good news I think is that it is not as virulent as previous variants and that has been a blessing, to a degree. 

“But in an already stressed situation, any increase in inpatient care is obviously a problem.”

Extra beds in care homes have been commissioned, Mr Chalmers said, but he emphasised that the focus was still on raising the quality of care rather than just quantity, because “drops in [quality of] care will lead to more hospitalisation, so it would be self-defeating to do that”. 

“The more the community can do, a bit like when the first wave happened, the better it is for all of us, in some ways," he said.

“Our lonely, our elderly who are isolated - I think, almost as a new year’s resolution, if we could all do more, that would be a good thing.”

He added that he expected the worst of the situation to carry on for another four to six weeks.

GP surgeries have meanwhile been grappling with similar challenges. 

Dr Tim Morton, chairman of the Norfolk and Waveney Local Medical Committee, said staff absences caused by Covid were having “a considerable impact on primary care”.

Dr Tim Morton

Dr Tim Morton - Credit: Archant

“My own practice has a considerable number of people isolating at home with Covid, which means that at a time where the whole system is stressed, our ability to deal with patients is compromised.

“That, and also the fact that patients’ operations etc are being delayed, and patients are obviously concerned, and turn to the general practice for advice.

“We’re also seeing an increasing number of patients being discharged rapidly and obviously, with our community nursing colleagues, that places an increased strain.”

He added that GPs had been forced to triage calls even more carefully than before to ensure that those most in need were prioritised. 

“Over the last weekend, across the system, [we were] putting on extra clinics and proactively calling care homes to reduce the pressure on the out-of-hours and 111 system, so general practice has been stepping up to support the system."

Dee Holbrook, a senior officer for the Royal College of Nursing, said health staff are “exhausted as they try to fill in the gaps in the workforce”.

She also warned: “Vaccinations alone will not reduce infections and hospitalisations – more must be done to prioritise nursing staff for access to testing and high-quality PPE.”

A spokesman for Healthwatch Norfolk - an organisation which represents patients - said the group had been “surprised” by the CCG's calling of a critical incident. 

He said: “We know that NHS staff are ensuring the highest possible standards of care that are possible at the moment but equally, this critical incident period should not last a second more than it needs to do so as this is a concern both to those currently receiving care and we also worry it will put off people getting help when they need it.”