October’s Care Conversation webinar looked at how the social care sector could not only bounce back from COVID-19, but thrive.
Helen O’Kane, Head of Healthcare M&A at BDO, opened by asking the panellists how they thought care home occupancy could recover to pre-COVID levels. “The first thing we must do is regain public trust,” said Managing Director of Black Swan Care Group, Tom Lyons. “At the height of the pandemic care homes spent too long on the front pages of the newspapers, which was clearly down to some poor guidance and disrupted PPE supply chains.”
Since then, however, care homes had become some of the most COVID-secure places, he stressed. “Our staff are tested weekly, our cleaning regimes – which were already robust – have been built on further.” While a good CQC rating was as important as ever, it was also vital to publicize what homes were doing not only in terms of compliance and infection control but in supporting and entertaining residents.
“It’s a real challenge,” said Chair of Hallmark Care Homes, Avnish Goyal. “From selling luxury and lifestyle, and the choices around that, it’s become about safety. The top two priorities are now, ‘How safe will mum be?’ and, ‘Can I visit?’ We are starting to see some guidance from the government around visiting, which is long overdue – providers are really struggling to manage safe visits without proper guidance because everyone’s doing their own thing.” It was crucial to reassure the public that where there were challenges in the past, “we’ve learned those lessons and we’re open for business”, he said. “There’s a huge amount of effort going in, but there’s still a lot more to do.”
Technology, virtual tours and promotional videos were now key tools, panellists agreed, especially where they showed residents “having fun and enjoying life”, and making sure staff felt fully supported was also vital. “Just as COVID is infectious, so is confidence,” said Founder of Precious Homes, Mitesh Dhanak. “It’s very important to talk up the sector, what we do and all the good things that happen every day.”
COVID-19 had also offered opportunities to demonstrate the sector’s resilience and how it could adapt to profound challenges, however. On the question of whether the pandemic could mean investors reconsidering the long-term potential of the sector, Senior Investment Manager at Moorfield Group, Nic Lowry, stated that, “It’s here to stay. In the short-term I imagine investors will be readjusting investment criteria and looking at certain operational metrics, which is understandable, but I think we’ll continue to see new entrants to the market from an investor perspective. The raw data and demographics in the UK speak for themselves in that there’s a big supply/demand imbalance. I think it’s pretty positive.”
The adult specialist care sector remained robust, added Mitesh Dhanak. “In terms of the KPIs that funds would look at, it’s property backed, it’s resilient cashflow, it’s government backed – it ticks all the right boxes.” The ‘new normal’ also meant that the elderly care market was fully prepared for a second COVID wave, said Avnish Goyal. “There’s a lot of money out there, and where do people want to invest – is it leisure, retail, hotels? No, it’s health and social care. It’s about how do we thrive through COVID, rather than survive – we just have to choose which part of the sector we want to be in, and provide the level of service that the public wants.”
When it came to public perception of the sector in the wake of adverse publicity, Tom Lyons stressed the importance of ensuring that the integration of health and social care went from being ‘talk’ to reality. “I don’t think the public quite understand how important care homes are in terms of hospital capacity.” One of the key challenges would be gaining public support “for what are predominantly private, for-profit businesses”, he acknowledged. “There is the perception that providers focus on profit before people, which quite simply isn’t true, and one of the other key ways of promoting care is to better publicize the roles within it. Everyone understands what doctors and nurses do, and those professions are respected. It really frustrates me that carers can be labelled as unskilled when they’re very highly skilled – we need to give the profession the recognition it truly deserves.”
“Unfortunately, the British press loves the horror stories,” said Mitesh Dhanak. “It’s about lobbying the government and making sure that our voice is heard and our contribution is recognised. It’s incumbent on all of us to try to do that.”
On the issue of galvanizing public solidarity with social care, Tom Lyons restated the importance of highlighting the clear financial benefits to the NHS in terms of freeing up beds. “This is really tangible, and really measurable.” It was also important for providers to make sure they joined care associations and the Care Provider Alliance in order to build influence with the government, added Avnish Goyal, as well as make the most of social media channels. “As Mitesh said, our media loves horror stories, but for each of those there’s a thousand great news stories that need to be heard. The war isn’t won yet. But how we are judged as a society is how we look after our older and vulnerable people.”
The full webinar recording can be viewed here.