Melanie Weatherley: NHS long-term plan must be backed up by a social care green paper

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Yesterday (January 7), after months of waiting with bated breath, the government finally published its NHS long-term plan at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

Like the vast majority working in the health and social care sector, I could finally breath a sigh of relief. We have been waiting for the plan to be published for some time and I am delighted to see it finally come to fruition.

The plan sets out the key priorities and funding plans for the NHS for the next decade. The 136-page document has been drafted by health and care leaders in partnership with the Department of Health.

It’s come at the right time, not just for Lincolnshire, but for the rest of England. In many respects, the NHS is at a crossroads. Big questions have been raised about the sustainability of the NHS as we all get older and live longer.

How can we maintain a health system free at the point of use and still keep high patient outcomes and hit targets for treatment? The reality today is that there are higher expectations and demand on NHS services but limited resources and funding.

Whether this plan tackles this issue remains to be seen. This is just the start. Following the launch yesterday, local NHS organisations will work with each other, local councils and others partners to develop their own strategies for the next five years, in accordance with the plan. These are expected to be published in autumn this year.

There are two common strands running through the plan. Firstly, it puts a strong emphasis on the prevention of long-term illnesses as Britain’s population gets older and bigger.

Some of the headline commitments include: preventing 150,000 heart attacks, strokes and dementia cases, saving 55,000 more lives a year by diagnosing more cancers early and investing an additional £2.3 billion a year into mental health.

Secondly, the plan, as echoed in the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, also aims to keep people out of hospital for longer. The issue of an aging population makes this a critical point of the plan, as the cost of people trapped in hospitals because they can’t get the right care when they leave cost the NHS £289 million every year.

I share with the rest of the social care sector the plan’s aspiration to improve care in people’s homes, but I’m disappointed the plan doesn’t make any reference to the importance of home care in addressing it.

Home care is the key to resolving this issue, but unfortunately the sector is underfunded, undervalued and under-resourced.

With the right level of investment and time, a high standard of home care can relieve pressures on NHS services and A&E departments. The benefit would be twofold. Not only would the NHS benefit from a resourceful home care sector, but those receiving the care would remain where they want to be for as long as possible – in their own home.

Delving into the detail, I’m particularly pleased the plan wants to give more people a say about the care they receive and where they receive it. Ultimately, the individual should have the final say about how they are cared for.

The next milestone for the health and social care sector is the Government’s Green Paper on social care. The elusive policy paper is expected to shake up the social care system in England and was promised by Government last summer. Six months on and the tin can continues to be kicked further down the road.

As someone who manages over 200 employees in the home care sector in Lincolnshire, I can say that the Green Paper can’t come quickly enough. For some time, there have been deep-rooted issues within the sector, particularly on funding, which need to be addressed sooner rather than later. If we fail to act now, the issues will only worsen.
While I welcome the NHS Long Term Plan and commit to working with NHS colleagues to help deliver its ambitions, it further reinforces the need for the social care Green Paper. Without it, this plan will become redundant.

Issues in health and social care are interlinked. Unless social care receives the funding it desperately deserves, the NHS will fail to deliver on its plan of keeping people out of hospital for as long as possible – and that’s with all the will in the world.

Social care needs to be robust and sustainable for home care providers to support the NHS to achieve the goals within the plan.

Read the full plan here.