Local government will play a central part in the country’s response to COVID-19 and this will bring additional strains on a sector which is already facing real challenges across its diverse set of services.
One of the key areas of vulnerability will be social care. Although there will be no single solution, technology can play its part, something already being recognised in NHS X’s emerging response to supporting vulnerable and isolated groups.
As the UK Home Care Association highlighted, COVID-19 will leave the commercial care market struggling, despite the Chancellor’s announcement of a £350bn package to support businesses ‘small and large’. Whilst current requests to local authorities to discuss the timings and nature of their payments could alleviate their financial pressures, the virus will exacerbate the pressures on staffing. Although technology is in no way a complete solution, it can be used in a number of areas to free up scarce human resource to focus on personal care.
This could range from familiar technologies such as medication and hydration reminders, through to using consumer devices to address social isolation. For example, Hampshire CC’s experience of using Amazon Echo with social services clients showed 62% of users felt less isolated and 68% more independent. The council, supported by PA Consulting, is also trialling the use of ‘cobots’ (or collaborative robots), machines which enhance a human’s abilities in lifting and moving people. These tasks often require two carers - but a cobot could support a single carer to carry out that lifting activity.
Beyond the commercial provider market, the impact of the disease on unpaid carers could potentially be very large. Local authorities must expect to see increased demand for services such as respite care because carers will fall ill themselves. Essex CC is currently assessing how technology can help these individuals by focusing on their mental health and wider wellbeing, as well as using video monitoring to provide assurances about the wellbeing of their loved ones. Residential homes often use staff across their wider estate but to minimise contamination, that may need to stop. This will place increased pressure on care staff within individual homes. To alleviate this, workforce planning becomes more important and solutions should include staff rescheduling and revising travel patterns and there are software solutions that can support this decision making. This will be particularly important as the plans to shield the UK’s 500,000 care home residents are put in place.
Another problem is that both providers and local authorities are not always well set up for working from home (which is not always appropriate in personal care) which means a significant resource is now being taken up with IT planning. For example, Appello, one of the UK’s leading monitoring providers, has just invested in a significant number of laptops for home working and is using technology to create a ‘virtual’ monitoring centre.
It is, however, important to recognise that expanded use of technology will not be without its challenges. In particular, the reliance on technology manufactured in the central Hubei province is a risk to continuity of service. This means services need to respond to supply chain pressures with robust stock management and review of alternative solutions where certain products look like supply will be restricted in the short term. This all should be supported by a deep understanding of the interoperability of the technology.
In addition, where the technology needs a physical technician to install the equipment the reluctance or inability of service users and their families or carers to allow them into their houses will limit technology’s impact. This assumes that installers themselves are not ill, self-isolating and not restricted by ‘lock downs’. All this creates a need for effective contingency planning around equipment supply (e.g., Royal Mail) and remote support for installation (where practicable).
This might be compounded by issues with network infrastructure and all major UK telecoms companies are reprioritising their network capacities. Although traditional analogue connectivity will be largely unaffected, digital devices and IOT could be impacted by reduced bandwidth caused by increased demand.
Technology remains a viable and reliable solution in continuing to monitor the wellbeing of service users 24/7 and can be used to help focus physical resources where they are needed most. However, it should be seen as part of a programme of wider responses.
David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting