We can’t forget the most important element for improving health and social care – people

·3-min read

The Covid-19 pandemic has been characterised by shortage after shortage of important “things”: food, masks, hand sanitiser, ventilators, oxygen, hospital beds and now blood vials.

This shortage of things has triggered bouts of panic buying and hoarding – giving those that do the illusion of protection by surrounding themselves with items in short supply. To our great shame in the developed world, even vaccines are being hoarded by some countries while being longed for by others.

In other ways it has put a spotlight on areas where there has always been a shortage, such as in health and social care. There is a desperate need to provide for the sector so that it can face the challenges ahead. Which is how we have come to the latest announcement by the government about increases to national insurance contributions and tax to help fund the provision of much needed resources to health and social care. It is also why we are now hearing government promises of “new” hospitals to provide more space for caring.

But when it comes to health, “things” are not enough. One of Julia Child’s favourite sayings was, apparently: “No one's more important than people.” If ever there was a slogan for what was needed in health and social care right now, it is that.

As much as new beds, new equipment, new physical spaces are needed to meet the demands of care in our country, the deeper and more pressing shortage is people. In the NHS alone there are more than 100,000 vacancies to be filled. In social care the numbers are even higher. There are simply not enough people working in health and social care, and that needs to change.

The stakes are high. Without more carers, more doctors, more nurses, more porters, more cleaners, health and social care cannot meet the demands of our population. People are the ones who “do” the caring, not things.

People take hunks of metal and motor, and using their expertise on the ward, transform them into ventilators that save lives. They take combinations of chemical compounds and use their expertise to turn them into treatment plans. They use their very own hands, hands that cannot be replaced with equipment, to care, wash, nourish and heal the bodies of others.

To succeed in caring for the nation, we need people. So as the government starts to sketch out what it will be doing with this new money dedicated to the health and social care sector, my plea is that they keep people at the very top of the agenda. They need to consider how that money can be used to entice new staff to join and old staff to stay. They should use that money to show how much people are valued for their work – by using it to support education and training in the sector. Quite frankly, the value of people has to be reflected in the salaries paid for these roles too.

Money talks, right? Let’s start the conversation by talking about the most important aspect of health and social care – people. To borrow from Julia (apologies), no one thing is more important, because without people, caring simply cannot happen.

Dr Alexis Paton is a lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health and co-director of the Centre for Health and Society at Aston University. Dr Paton is also chair of the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians and a trustee of the Institute of Medical Ethics

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