Plans to reduce care home beds in face of falling demand

Occupancy rates within Essex care homes has fallen by up to 20 per cent in some areas since COVID-19 – as the county admits it is planning an “orderly reduction” in the number of beds.

Using metrics from a report published in October 2019 – care homes will now be operating below an economic occupancy rate. The level of vacancies within Essex care homes is leading to concerns that many are not getting the level of business that keeps them viable.

In the Older People Residential Market there are 8,092 occupied beds – a 77 per cent occupancy rate. This is down from 90 per cent pre-pandemic according to Kingsbury Hill Fox’s A Strategic and Objective View of the Adult Social Care Market in Essex.

The latest report comes three weeks after ECC revealed that around £7.6 million of public funds alone have been stripped out of care homes in Essex over the past year – prompting fears that care homes may have to close down due to lack of residents.

The actual figure that has been lost due to families unwilling to send their loved ones into care homes is likely to be much higher given that many residents pay privately.

There have been three care home closures since April 2021 – but more could be expected. ECC has admitted several care homes are expressing concern about their future viability and COVID-19 funding may be masking a serious underlying viability within the care home sector.

ECC’s £4.1 million underspend in health and adult social care at the end of last year has now almost doubled.

To give some idea of the impact COVID-19 has had on the care market – West Quadrant is currently reporting the highest vacancy rate of 24 per cent – but in 2019 it had the highest occupancy rate at 95 per cent.

The 2019 report said that North Essex and South Essex have vacancy rates of 88 per cent and 86 per cent respectively, both below the county average and operating below an “economic occupancy rate”.

It is a far cry from projections growth for care home places in Essex of 31 per cent between 2019 and 2029 – equating to the need for about 3,640 new beds or 360 new ones each year – around five new purpose built care homes per year.

John Spence, cabinet member for adult social care, at a meeting of the People and Families Policy and Scrutiny Committee, last week said: “We’re actually seeing a surge again at the moment as people go from furlough back to work and can no longer care for their loved one, but we do expect there to be surplus capacity.

“So what we will need to do is to work with the market to achieve that peace – where we ensure there is both adequate capacity of the best quality and offering choice in every part of the county.

“That’s our goal to help the market move to an orderly reduction in capacity.

“What you don’t want to do is to have a scenario where the best providers leave the market and the less good providers stay.”

Cllr Spence continued: “Some of our very best providers are those people who are running their own care home and for whom the premises are ultimately their pension fund and you may therefore choose to leave the market in order to realise the asset for their retirement.

“So we have some real challenges to do with this over the next few years and we will work with the market.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter