Sir Keir Starmer has been accused of failing to explain how he will fund social care as part of his new health strategy, leaving families facing uncertainty over whether they will have access to free care.
The Labour leader gave a speech outlining his plans for “ambitious” reform of the healthcare system, including more community integration and focus on preventative care.
An accompanying document outlined a 10-year strategy for social care reform – but it did not contain detail of how it will be funded, or whether it will ensure more free care access.
Experts said that ensuring more people have access to publicly funded social care was the “single biggest issue” facing the sector and urged Labour to clarify how it plans to address this.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting confirmed last year that Labour intended to bring forward plans for a national care system but the financial model of it has not been decided on.
Labour sources said a review commissioned by the party into how social care could be funded is due to be published next month. They said the party will look at the proposals before outlining further details of what it plans to do to improve social care.
The party has pledged to end the workforce crisis in social care with a “fair pay agreement”, and better partnerships between NHS and social care, as well as giving unpaid carers paid family carer’s leave.
Simon Bottery, Fellow at the Kings Fund health think-tank, welcomed the reform announcements but warned that clarity around funding was crucial.
“Although there’s lots of stuff that broadly positive about social care, the document is completely missing anything about how you would ensure that more people got access to publicly funded social care, which is the single biggest issue really facing the sector,” he told i.
“Over the last five years more people have been going to local authorities asking for support, but fewer people have been getting it. And there’s nothing in the Labour proposal which says what they would do about this and in particular, there’s nothing about local authority funding.
“Local authority funding and the lack of money for publicly-funded social care packages has driven that so we need to see what labour plans to do to turn around that situation.”
He urged political parties not to see the issue of social care through the lens of helping the NHS. “Social care is more than that. It is fundamentally about how we ensure that people have the independence that they need in order to live the lives that they want. Talking about social care, purely in the context of an NHS policy framework is extremely limited,” he said.
Challenged over whether social care was still his priority, Sir Keir said: “It is a priority because I think anybody understands that the back door to the NHS hospital crisis is getting people out of care into the community and social care is part of that answer.”
He said he had set out a plan for staff retention and workforce and said that it was important to have a “home first principle” where care was taken to the patient in the first instance.
The Conservative government has grappled with the issue of how to pay for social care, with several prime ministers promising to introduce a cap on costs to prevent people from being forced to sell their homes.
Last year, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced planned reforms to social care were to be delayed due to strained public finances.
Lib Dem Health Spokesperson Daisy Cooper said “ending the crisis facing the NHS” required measures to address the care system.
“All political parties should be focusing their attention on the crisis in social care and get around the table to sort this mess out,” she told i. The Lib Dems have called for a new minimum wage for carers set £2 higher than the national living wage and free personal care “so that no one will have to sell their home to pay for care”.
Left-wing activist group Momentum urged Sir Keir to show “real ambition” and announced plans for a free care service.
“As trade unions such as Unison have made clear, our fragmented, privatised system of social care is not fit for purpose, a fact brutally exposed during the covid pandemic,” a spokesperson said.
“Fixing the Tories’ failures requires real ambition: a publicly owned and controlled National Care Service, providing free social care to those who need it and a real living wage for care workers, to end the current sticking-plaster model.”
Nuffield Health argued that poor outcomes and long waits for care needed more than a “quick fix” and said they were the result of “years if not decades in the making: a failure to plan and grow the NHS workforce, woeful underinvestment in NHS buildings and equipment, and an inability to grapple with reforming social care”.
“To succeed on these pledges, the Labour party will need to put more money than planned into the NHS, solve the growing crisis of recruitment and retention to health and social care roles, and act swiftly to shore up the crumbling NHS buildings and inadequate equipment which are holding back progress,” the think-tank said.