Commentary: To fix social care the PM needs a vision rooted in real lives

Boris Johnson’s long-awaited plan on social care may finally emerge this week. Various governments have tried to fix this titanic problem over the past decades. But as Julian McCrae explains, so far a solution has eluded the British political system

Fixing social care: The Prime Minister’s plan must find answers to the problems that actually affect people

For the Prime Minister to succeed where others have failed he needs three things: answers to the challenges people live through every day; a vision that inspires the wider public to get behind his plan; and thought-through tactics which allow him to shepherd it into reality.

Those tactics will be vital. Previous reforms have failed in the early stages – Theresa May did not prepare the ground for her proposals and they were dead within days.

Johnson needs to make sure that influential commentators will welcome his initiative. And that key backbenchers are on board. If, as The Times reported at the weekend, the government has not yet decided the form of any tax rise, the Prime Minister may be cutting it fine to get everyone onside.

Reports also suggest that the new funding might first be used to tackle the post-Covid backlog of NHS treatment. It would eventually be redirected to social care.

This might be good short-term tactics, aligning social care with the ever-popular NHS. But in the longer-term, it may be self-defeating. The Cameron reforms ultimately fell prey to the temptation to get a greater “political bang for taxpayers buck” by diverting new social care funding into the NHS.

Is it really credible for the Johnson government to ask people to trust that in a few years they’ll shift NHS money into social care? This vital overhaul of social care must not get pushed to the back of the queue once again. For those struggling with this broken system change cannot come too soon.

And to truly succeed, the Prime Minister’s plan must find answers to the problems that actually affect people.

Of these there are many. Politicians often focus on people having to sell their homes to access care. The PM is on safe ground if he stops this from happening. It’s deeply unpopular with the public – even lifelong renters oppose it.

And the plan can’t just be about people in their old age. It also needs to help younger adults with profound disabilities, their families and their carers. From the political debate, you’d never know this accounts for half the cost of social care in this country.

These are the challenges people across Britain talk about when discussing social care. To address them, the plan needs to transform services, so they build trusting relationships with families and communities, so care workers have greater skills and autonomy, so people have certainty about their future. Some, but not all of this, is about funding. None of it is about the housing means test.

And around all this, the Prime Minister needs to sell his vision to the wider public. After all, asking the public to put more money into a system without showing what’s going to be better hasn’t proved to be a great pitch so far, as previous would-be reformers have found to their cost.

So far it hasn’t been clear what the PM thinks the wider public will unite behind. What’s his vision for how we might live in our frail old age? Does he think our society is ready to ensure everyone, including those with profound disabilities, have the best life possible?

When it’s published, the plan will hopefully show that the government understands the challenges that people across the country face. And that it’s woven its answers to these challenges into an inspiring vision that can overcome the inevitable opposition ahead.

Johnson is a formidable campaigning politician. Now’s the time to see whether he is also a formidable domestic reformer.

Julian McCrae is Director of Engage Britain