‘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 who are already vulnerable due to illness, disability, and old age. Many vulnerable people depend 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 has 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 can suspend, withdraw, or radically change the form of a wide range of Care Act duties and provisions, using so-called ‘easements’. These aim 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. Not all local authorities implemented easements during the first wave of the pandemic.
There is increasing concern at the extent to which the Government has been prepared to reduce existing individual rights in response to the pandemic. This project will examine the short- and longer-term impacts of social care easements on service-users’ fundamental rights, focusing on their application in four local authority areas in the Midlands – Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire – all home to diverse communities and each with locales of acute social deprivation. This research is being undertaken in partnership with Central England Law Centre, and with the support of a dedicated Advisory Board.
Key research questions include:
- Which rights, contained in the Care Act 2014, can or have been removed under the easements offered in the Coronavirus Act 2020? With what have they been replaced?
- What are the impacts of these social care easements in practice?
- Does the removal of rights disproportionately affect particular groups of vulnerable people? If so, which groups are these, and is this pattern seen across different LAs?
- How do service providers and other stakeholders view the use of easements?
- What does the introduction and implementation of easements mean for the future parameters of social care provision?