Social services and social care play a key role in helping the most vulnerable face the social and economic consequences of the pandemic and preventing lockdowns turning into social exclusion. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has placed additional pressure on a sector already under stress, further exposing pre-existing gaps and weaknesses of existing social welfare systems. This has led to the creation of additional vulnerabilities, particularly amongst older people, those who rely on social services, and those who have lost their jobs because of Covid-19, resulting in financial precarity, and ultimately leading to social exclusion.
European policy and financial instruments, such as the Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights, the Disability Strategy, the Child Guarantee, or the Recovery Funds can be a transformational opportunity for social services. In an environment of severe global uncertainty, the role of public authorities has been increasingly seen as more reliable than individual interests and free market principles. This being the case, recent European policy and funding decisions represent an important opportunity to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.
As a society, we have contracted a large moral debt due to the number of excess deaths of older people in residential social and care services during the pandemic. Governments across Europe knew that older people were most vulnerable to Covid-19 but failed to adequately shelter the social services and social care sector. In its initial guidance for the implementation of the European Recovery Funds to national authorities, the European Commission’s proposals failed to acknowledge and resource the historic and prolonged underinvestment in public health and social care services.
The Recovery Funds should respond to the strategic priorities set out by the European Commission. Its Action Plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights sets three targets related to employment and fighting poverty. While they seem modest, it should be acknowledged that the Action Plan is not a stand-alone document to implement the plan and it is seen as the basis for further future policy instruments.
The Commission is making efforts to provide a roadmap and clear targets, but this will only be effectively implemented through partnering with the regional and local social services that have the statutory duty of improving social inclusion. Yet, there is a lack of specific proposals as to how this engagement could take place and instead encourages national coordination mechanisms.
Actions continue to largely miss important areas of improvement for local social services, which are key to the implementation of most Pillar principles. For instance, a long-term care plan, which is due to be published in 2022, and a social services and social care workforce strategy seem to still be absent as well as initiatives to improve the social services sector, like a review of the European social services quality framework.
In their national recovery plans to access EU Recovery Funds, national governments in cooperation with regional and local public social services should invest in social services transformations, including:
- A care guarantee for all to ensure that the model of care shifts towards prevention and family support, upholding children’s best interest, and promoting a community and home-based approach for people with disabilities and older adults.
- The modernisation of infrastructure, including the digitalisation of platforms and processes, tools supporting decision-making, and assisted living technologies.
- Partnerships across services to support people with complex needs, such as homeless people investing in preventive approaches and integrated housing and care models.
- National workforce strategies supporting the formal workforce including the sector’s attractiveness, development and resources, as well as informal carers.
- Economic activation and job creation, as social, home and community-based services have the capacity to integrate large segments of the population into the job market to incentivise the care economy.
The challenge we are talking about is not only large, but a moving target as Europe is faced with additional waves of the pandemic. That said, it is crucial that these principles drive the transformation of our social welfare systems. As the Commission assesses the national plans, it should ensure that they are fully aligned with our moral obligation to shift child support towards a preventative-based one and older adults care towards a community and home-based so that what happened last year in care homes does not happen again. EU policies and funds should not be used any longer to implement patchy solutions such as renovation of nursing facilities, but to make possible and recognisable a large range of initiatives to make life in the community for all a reality.