COVID-19 ‘magnified stresses’ that councils and care providers were already faced with before the pandemic and dealing with complaints became a ‘casualty’, a new report says.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has analysed their cases over the first 18 months of the pandemic and concluded that councils and care providers weathered the unprecedented pressures they were under ‘by and large’.
However, the Ombudsman noted in their new report – entitled Unprecedented pressure: Learning from complaints about council and care provider actions during the COVID-19 pandemic – that when things did go wrong it had ‘a serious impact on people’s lives’ and that councils and care providers did not always handle complaints very well.
Between 1 April 2020 and 30 November 2021, the Ombudsman decided 1,123 complaints and enquiries from the public, which featured COVID-19 as a primary or secondary factor. They decided 505 of those cases with a detailed investigation.
As a comparison with their total casework, the Ombudsman decided more than 24,158 complaints and enquiries on all topics, with 6,056 cases decided by detailed investigation, during that same period.
The largest category of complaints investigated during those 18 months of the pandemic related to benefits and tax (41%), the report shows. These were almost exclusively about council decisions on business support grants.
The other two main categories of complaints investigated were adult social care (20%) and education and children’s services (12%).
Cases highlighted in the report include a woman who died from COVID-19 at a care home with poor infection control procedures which was then compounded by staff later trying to cover up the facts.
Another case involved a homeless family left to sofa surf then sleep in a tent at the height of the pandemic, after different departments of the same council failed to help them.
‘We have investigated some tragic individual cases over the past months. Each represents poor personal experiences where councils and care providers did not get things right,’ said the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King.
‘Our investigations have shown that, while the system did not collapse under the extreme pressures placed on it, COVID-19 has magnified stresses and weaknesses present before the pandemic affecting some councils and providers.
‘We have always advocated how crucial good complaint handling is in any setting, so I am particularly saddened that, in some authorities, dealing with public concerns and complaints itself became a casualty of the crisis. At a time when listening to public problems was more important than ever, we saw some overstretched and under-resourced complaints teams struggle to cope.
‘If evidence was needed, this report proves that managing complaints should be considered a frontline service.’