NHS leaders call for minimum wage increase for carers

Members of the NHS Confederation warn that the sector is losing staff to better paid retail jobs

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NHS leaders are calling on the UK government to implement a national care worker minimum wage, warning that otherwise the sector will continue to “haemorrhage staff” to better paying retail and supermarket jobs.

The NHS Confederation has sent a letter to the prime minister, cautioning that without an increase in pay above the hourly wage that other sectors have already introduced in response to the cost of living crisis, the social care sector in England would “lose any remaining competitive edge” when it came to attracting staff.

Health leaders are concerned that without an increase to the minimum wage for care staff to £10.50 an hour, the sector would not be able to fill vacancies and staff would move on to better paid roles elsewhere.

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A decade ago, the average hourly wage for a care worker was 13p per hour more than those working in the sales and retail sector, the letter said. However, by last year, social care workers were being paid around 21p per hour less than those working in supermarkets.

The Confederation cautioned that a staff exodus would likely further exacerbate waiting times and drive demand for NHS services even higher. This could mean that hospitals will have to delay the discharge of patients and keep them in hospital longer because of the lack of social care available when they leave.

“We are seeing the impact of this heightened pressure across the NHS already, with far too many patients having to stay in hospital longer than they need to due to inadequate social care provision locally,” said Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

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“We urgently need the Government to take decisive action to fully fund this minimum wage increase which should be distributed through local authorities, to ensure funding reaches the front line, does not impact self-funders’ cost of care, and alleviates these severe staffing challenges,” Taylor said.

In its letter, the NHS Confederation also warned of a real risk that the more competitive levels of pay offered by the NHS for similar roles could ramp up the ever-widening gap in remuneration between health and social care.

It also noted that, across the UK, pay in England lagged behind Scotland and Wales, which are funding minimum pay rates for carer staff of £10.50 and £9.90 per hour respectively.

The Confederation emphasised that while the government has previously acknowledged that a workforce strategy for social care is required, and that carers have been placed on the shortage occupation list to support overseas recruitment, this has not been enough to stop social care staff leaving the service en masse. 

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher's Hospice, called the proposition “more than justified”, noting that some NHS trusts have opened their own food banks for staff. “This is how bad it is right now,” he said.

Arshad added that many care workers were suffering silently, and that the situation was likely to get worse. “I would argue that the government does have money to spend, it is a choice of where it gets spent,” he said.

Charles Cotton, senior reward adviser for the CIPD, said it was important the care sector received the financial support it needed to deliver the services people required. “While we support a living wage for care workers, longer term we would like a discussion as to whether care workers should also be covered by the Agenda for Change grading and pay scales that already exist in our NHS,” he said.