Building a resilient social care system in England: What can be learnt from the first wave of Covid-19?

Social care in England entered the pandemic in a fragile state. With much already written about the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the social care sector, our new report in collaboration with the Care Policy and Evaluation Centre analyses the structural and systemic factors that influenced that initial national response. Covid had far-reaching impacts on social care and exacerbated many longstanding issues. This work seeks to highlight progress and identify where action is needed to create a more resilient system.

Covid-19 had an enormous impact on everyone who is in contact with social care. That includes people who draw on care and support, their families, the staff who provide and manage services, and people who lead and organise social care. Deaths from, or with, Covid-19 have been the most obvious impact of the pandemic in social care, but there have been less visible impacts too. For example, people in care homes were not able to have visitors and many people who have care at home were isolated from friends and family. The effect on the mental health and wellbeing of these groups is still not fully understood. 

Staff have also been deeply affected by Covid-19 and the organisations they work in have faced many challenges. But the impacts have not been felt equally and some have been more affected than others. For example, people with learning disabilities were estimated to be more than three times more likely to die of Covid-19 than the general population.

Much has already been written about the early response to Covid-19 in social care in England and where it could have been better. The Health and Care and Science and Technology Select Committees wrote that social care was not given enough priority in the early weeks. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that the response was slow and inconsistent.

In this report, we identify the things that affected how well the government and the social care sector were able to cope with the pandemic.

In the years before Covid-19, cuts to the money that councils were able to spend on social care left the social care system with problems. Many people were not able to get the care they needed and a large number of people relied on unpaid carers to support them. A lot of the organisations that provide care were struggling financially and could not find enough staff to give enough good quality care to people who needed it.

Covid-19 made these problems very visible, and made them worse. It is vital that these problems are well understood so that they can be put right to create a stronger social care system. Many lessons have been learnt during Covid and the support to social care improved as the pandemic continued. It is important that the positive learning is not lost.

Read the full findings or the accessible summaries by using the links at the top of the page.

This report has been developed as part of the Social Care COVID Recovery & Resilience project, funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), Policy Research Programme (PRP) – Recovery, Renewal, Reset: Research to inform policy responses to COVID-19 in the health and social care systems. Project number: NIHR202333. The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.


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Suggested citation

Curry N, Oung C, Hemmings N, Comas-Herrera A and Byrd W (2023) Building a resilient social care system in England: What lessons can be learnt from Covid-19? Research report, Nuffield Trust and Care Policy and Evaluation Centre.