‘Removing rights from the vulnerable?: the impact of COVID-19 Social Care ‘easements’’ is an 18-month research project funded by the ESRC as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.
Timeframe: November 2020 – April 2022
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on those made vulnerable due to illness, disability, and old age, many of whom rely on support and services provided by their local authority (council). Both service users and social care providers have faced exceptional challenges during the pandemic, particularly as workers fall ill, self-isolate, or are redeployed at a time of increased demand for services. In response, the Government introduced ‘easements’ to previously mandatory obligations, allowing local authorities the flexibility to prioritise, streamline and, in some cases, withdraw elements of support for elderly and disabled people with social care needs.
What are ‘easements’?
The Care Act 2014 places obligations on local authorities to help to improve service users’ care and wellbeing. As part of the emergency powers rolled out in the Coronavirus Act 2020 (specifically schedule 12, section 15), local authorities in England could suspend, withdraw, or radically change the form of a wide range of Care Act duties and provisions, using so-called ‘easements’. These aimed to ‘ease’ staffing pressures for already over-stretched local authorities in pandemic conditions in order “to streamline present assessment arrangements and prioritise care so that the most urgent and acute needs are met”. These measures are designed to be temporary and deployed only when absolutely necessary. Just eight local authorities in England formally implemented easements during the first wave of the pandemic, and none has activated them during subsequent waves.
There was immediate and continuing concern at the extent to which the Government has been prepared to reduce existing individual rights in response to the pandemic. This project examines the short- and longer-term impacts of social care easements on service-users’ fundamental rights, focusing on their application in five local authority areas in the West Midlands – Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Staffordshire, and Warwickshire – all home to diverse communities and each with locales of acute social deprivation. The actions of these local authorities are contrasted with a range of other West Midlands local authorities, including those that were operating “flexibilities” within the pre-amendment Care Act, and others which stated that they were not using any easements.
The project examines:
- The relationship between the existing and emergency legislation around adult social care provision;
- The impact of the pandemic and the emergency measures on adult social care provision in terms of decision-making, prioritisation, and practical support on the ground in the early months of the pandemic; the implementation of statutory ‘easements’ and their impact on social care; and what happened once the easements were formally withdrawn;
- For comparison, what happened in local authorities where ‘easements’ were not formally notified;
- What these experiences suggest about the effectiveness of national and Local Authority level preparedness and emergency planning in relation to adult social care;
- How far pandemic practices have changed the nature of and expectations regarding the delivery of adult social care services;
- The lessons that can be learned from the West Midlands’ experience in relation to national debates around the reform of adult social care provision.