New evidence on use of Covid ‘easements’ by local authorities
At the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020 the UK government legislated to relax its requirements for local authorities to deliver adult social care services. These ‘easements’ to the Care Act were intended to aid local authority management of social care and provide legal protections during a period of uncertainty and crisis.
New research funded by the School is investigating how and why the easements of the Coronavirus Act were put in place, and their impact. The study was one of the projects funded by NIHR SSCR looking at the impact of the pandemic on social care. For the first phase of the project, researchers at the NIHR Health & Social Care Workforce Research Unit, based at King’s College London, carried out interviews with key informants working in the adult social care sector, in order to gather their perspectives on emergency measures. These included lawyers, government officials, and advisors in leading charities and smaller grass-roots charities.
The study, led by Dr Mary Baginsky, highlights the ways in which different stakeholders viewed the measures. Interviewees from the Department of Health & Social Care tended to see the emergency measures as a reasonable way of reducing the strain on local authorities. They were “‘a necessary piece of legislation that no-one wanted to write’, enabling local authorities to continue to meet essential needs even if they were not able to meet all duties prescribed by the Care Act. Many others, however, were opposed to the easements, reasoning that ‘if laws had been introduced to protect the most vulnerable people in society, they should not be suspended during a public health crisis.’
One participant described the easements as a ‘knee-jerk response, rather than a thoughtful response to what was actually necessary in the circumstances’. A particular concern was ‘the provision that allowed LAs to suspend their duty to meet a person’s eligible needs, except where this would breach their rights under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).’ The researchers note that ‘the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) referred to this threshold as ‘vague’ and called for its removal.’
Some interviewees believed those authorities that did adopt the easements could not have proved their use was essential, nor would they have been able to properly inform people accessing social care of their new rights and entitlements. However, ultimately only a small number of local authorities in England adopted the temporary easements and those that did, opted out of them by July 2020. This did not necessarily reflect areas affected the most by Covid – no London local authority, for example, adopted the easements, despite the region having high numbers of Covid cases in this period. A national campaign against the easements ‘may have led LAs to stop using them just a few weeks or months after triggering their introduction and to others deciding not to follow that path.’
In Phase 2 of this study, the researchers have been gathering the perspectives and experiences of local authorities (either who adopted the easements or did not), and the individuals affected by easements. It is hoped that the evidence gathered during both phases of the study will provide insights which may guide responses to future pandemics and other emergencies.
Follow future project findings and outputs on the NIHR SSCR project page.
Baginsky, M., Thomas, E. & Manthorpe, J (2022) The Coronavirus Act’s Easements to the Care Act 2014: A Pragmatic Response or a Red Herring?, The British Journal of Social Work.