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A care package is needed to support the mental health of three million NHS and care staff, according to the Labour Party.
The move follows calls by Nursing Times to provide health and social care nursing staff with dedicated mental health support, as part of our Covid-19: Are You OK? campaign.
“Even before the pandemic hit, the case for investing in this kind of support was clear”
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, Labour’s shadow mental health minister, has called for a shake-up of mental health support to ensure that NHS and care workers can access “fast-tracked help and advice”.
The party has designed a new four-stage “care for carers” package to cover all NHS and social care staff in England, who are “doing vital and often distressing work during the coronavirus pandemic”.
The party’s package, staffed by paid professionals, would include a new national hotline available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and follow-up support, including specialist assessments and referrals.
There would also be intervention and treatment, including specialised post-traumatic stress disorder support, and follow-up and sign-posted to external services, such as alcohol and addiction services.
Labour has estimated that its service could be delivered at £25 per head, with an expected take-up of 3-5% of the workforce using the service.
Labour’s Care for Carers:
Stage 1: National hotline widely advertised and accessible to all staff, open 24/7, operated by paid staff. It would have a low threshold, would provide general advice and empathetic listening. Then there would be an option for specialist assessment where required, moving to stage 2.
Stage 2: Follow-up support, specialist assessments by mental health professionals, referrals to psychological support and unlimited telephone support. Option to move to stage 3.
Stage 3: Intervention and treatment, including fast access to group or psychological therapies, including specialised PTSD support. This could include psychotherapy, group therapy, telephone therapies, case management and prescriptions. Option to move to stage 4.
Stage 4: Follow up and sign-posted to external services, if necessary, including alcohol and addiction services. A centralised secure process ensures patient follow-up can be enacted upon and can be directed to further assessment services.
In early April, a helpline was launched by NHS England for nurses and other frontline staff who needed support with their mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In contrast to Labour’s proposals, the free service is staffed by more than 1,500 specially trained volunteers and open only between 7am and 11pm every day, while a text service is 24/7.
At the time it was launched, NHS England confirmed to Nursing Times that the helpline would be open to all health and care workers in England, including those not employed by the NHS.
When asked by Nursing Times about further measures to support staff mental health at a Downing Street briefing in early May, ministers indicated there were no further plans beyond the helpline.
Labour argued today that the current support was “inadequate”, did not cover independent sector staff doing NHS and social care work, and that there were long waiting lists and regional variations.
In some areas, nurses could wait for a year for an appointment, it noted and said that the Covid-19 hotline offered emotional support and signposting, but did not lead on to psychological therapies.
In addition, Labour is calling for the government to appoint a new independent national wellbeing guardian to co-ordinate and oversee support, and to hold ministers and NHS employers to account.
It suggested the guardian would work with unions, trusts and care providers to ensure all staff knew how to access support and build confidence that their wellbeing was being “championed and protected”.
The pandemic has “exacerbated an already grim picture” for staff mental health, said Labour, with almost five million working days lost to poor mental health in 2019.
Dr Allin-Khan said: “Even before the pandemic hit, the case for investing in this kind of support was clear. Coronavirus has exacerbated the existing crisis in mental health.
“Many NHS and social care staff have been scared of going to work, and they have lost patients and colleagues. It has been heartbreaking to witness the toll this virus has taken on staff mental health.
“Current support is not good enough, and without a tailored, fast-tracked service for staff who have faced death and despair every day for over three months, our frontline heroes will continue to be failed,” she said.
“It is time for the government to give back to those who have sacrificed so much to keep our loved ones safe,” she said. “Unless our staff are protected, they cannot continue their vital work.”
Nursing Times has launched a campaign called Covid-19: Are You OK? to highlight the mental health needs of nurses on the frontline and to lobby for immediate and long-lasting support.
A survey for the campaign found that 33% of respondents rated their overall mental health and wellbeing as “bad” or “very bad” and 50% described themselves as “a lot” more anxious or stressed since the pandemic.
The survey, which had 3,500 respondents, also revealed nurses’ concerns around access to personal protective equipment, contracting Covid-19, being redeployed and witnessing the death of patients without family present.
More about Covid-19: Are You OK?
Responding to the Labour call for action, Unison assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: “Health and care staff have been working under huge pressures over the past few months.
“Fears about falling ill, passing the virus on to loved ones or those they care for, and working without adequate safety kit have only added to the stress,” she said.
“Even before the pandemic hit, overworked staff were suffering with their mental health. The Covid crisis will only have heightened these problems,” noted Ms McAnea.
She added: “A one-size-fits-all approach of occupational health assistance won’t work. Support must be much more tailored to suit individual needs than is currently the case.”
Fellow union Unite welcomed Labour’s proposals and called on the government to implement them “as soon as possible”.
Unite national officer Jacalyn Williams said: “These plans would create much needed support for the mental health of NHS and care staff who have faced the brunt of the worst impacts of the pandemic day after day.
“Having lost patients and colleagues, and with the threat of the virus to themselves and their loved ones ever present, it is no surprise that the mental health of staff in the health and social care sector has suffered.”
She added: “After years of service cuts, staff shortages and increased workloads, there was already a mental health crisis amongst health and social care workers.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said: “Care workers are the front line, they need and deserve a centralised support service where they can glean emotional support.
“Covid-19 has put even more emotional pressures on adult social care workers and it is of paramount importance that we support them. Our staff are our biggest and best resource.”