Social care services are turning away new clients and handing back existing care packages as they struggle with staffing shortages exacerbated by the spread of Omicron, a survey has found.
Two thirds of home care providers are turning away new requests for care while a fifth are handing back care packages, according to research by the National Care Forum (NCF).
And 43% of care home providers are closed to new admissions, the research found.
The NCF said those on the front line are describing the situation as “grim, difficult and relentless”.
The organisation, which represents not-for-profit care providers across the UK, surveyed its 159 members between January 5 and 10.
Some 110 members responded, who support over 130,000 people, provide approximately 5,250 services and employ approximately 98,000 staff.
Members reported an average vacancy rate of 18%, and said 14% of staff were unable to work because of Omicron on average.
The shortages mean some frontline staff are picking up extra shifts while non-care staff are being redeployed from other areas, and providers are increasingly relying on agency staff with higher hourly rates.
Social care staff vacancy rates have been growing for months and have been compounded by the mandatory vaccination requirement for care home staff, which came into force in mid November.
The NCF said “extensive delays” in receiving PCR tests results is also exacerbating pressures.
And it criticised the “continual drip feed approach” to Government funding, saying that bureaucracy means tranches fail to reach providers in time.
The Government has announced an extra £60 million for local authorities to support the adult social care response to coronavirus in January.
This is on top of existing funding to prevent infections and provide testing, a recruitment campaign, and a £162.5 million fund to help providers recruit and retain staff over the coming months.
One NCF member said: “The situation changes by the shift, let alone by the day.
“It is firefighting every day and prioritising delivery of care over other responsibilities.”
Another said: “We have had to have contingency plans in place asking families and volunteers to help out.
“Also, our directors and senior managers are on standby and have covered waking night shifts.”
NCF chief executive Vic Rayner said: “It is unacceptable that yet again, nearly two years on from the start of the pandemic, we continue to see enormous pressures in the care and support sector, this time compounded by the impact of Omicron.
“Staff shortages are excessively high and everything must be done to support providers to operate safe and quality services, so that people have access to the care and support they need, when they need it.
“The adoption of a strategy by government that gives social care the crumbs from the table in an unrealistic hope that somehow it can continue to operate regardless of meaningful attention is negligent.
“The NCF and our membership have been highlighting the growing shortages in the workforce and the knock-on impact on those who remain working in the sector and those who use care and support services for many months. How many times does this message need to be repeated for it to be heard?”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “Protecting care staff and people who use social care services continues to be a priority, especially as Omicron spreads rapidly across the country.
“Care staff are working incredibly hard, and to strengthen the workforce we have provided £462.5 million for recruitment and retention, expanded the Health and Care Visa scheme, and are running our Made with Care recruitment campaign.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have made almost £2.4 billion in specific funding available for adult social care as well as an extra £60 million to keep people in care homes safe over January.”