Exploring the issues facing third sector adult social care providers before and during the COVID-19 pandemic: evidence from Wales and Northern Ireland

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.


Research by WISERD Co-Director, Professor Paul Chaney, Dr Christala Sophocleous, and Professor Daniel Wincott, provides new insights into the issues facing third sector community-based adult care services in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in Wales and Northern Ireland. The findings come from two ESRC-funded studies that are part of WISERD’S civil society research programme.

The first study provides a snapshot of the position of third sector adult social care providers in Wales immediately prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. It shows that many were already in a precarious and challenging position before COVID-19 hit. Six months into the pandemic emerging findings from the second study in Northern Ireland reveal how some third sector care providers are now battling for survival.


Research on social care and the third sector

Both studies used semi-structured interviews with key policy actors. Undertaken from 2017 to 2019, the first Welsh study examined the role of the voluntary and community sector in the implementation of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. It examined third sector organisations’ views on the issues, progress and challenges linked to their delivery of adult social care in community settings. This model of care delivery was encouraged under the Section 16 duty on local authorities to promote third sector organisations in providing care and support.

The second project is currently exploring national bodies’ experiences and views on third sector organisations’ delivery of adult social care in the community under the different policy frameworks in the different countries of the UK. ‘National bodies’ include equality and human rights commissions and third sector and professional bodies associated with social care.


What does the research tell us about the situation of adult social care providers prior to the pandemic in Wales?

Adult social care providers highlighted a raft of funding issues that had significantly undermined their financial position before the pandemic. These included the negative implications of competitive tendering compared to grant funding, and organisational sustainability problems in light of the increasing move towards short-term, project-based funding.

Across all levels of operation from the local to the all-Wales level, third sector organisations and community groups spoke of how short-term funding had undermined organisational stability (for example, due to high levels of staff turnover), limited the ability to plan strategically, and placed constraints on joint-working with potential partners across sectors.

The provision of services from statutory providers to prevent or delay the development of people’s care needs is one of the building blocks aspired to in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. Voluntary and community organisations have been in the vanguard of providing such services.

However, another reoccurring theme emerging from our research was the immeasurability of preventative measures as part of third sector organisations’ community-based action.

Study participants spoke of how it is difficult to demonstrate that their organisation’s home visits had delayed or prevented individuals’ future care needs from local authorities or NHS Wales. Third sector providers feared that this inability to fully demonstrate the preventative aspect of their work would compromise their ability to secure renewal of their contracts by risk-averse local authority officials who are constrained by ‘best value’ duties.


What does the research tell us about the situation of adult social care providers in Northern Ireland during the pandemic?

Here we illustrate our emerging findings by concentrating on three themes highlighted by study participants.


Community organisations repeatedly emphasised their battle for survival and that they were fighting to keep themselves afloat in the face of a range of challenges including:

  • a loss of funding owing to reduced donations (as a result of lockdown and furloughed workers having less disposable income),
  • the scaling back of public awareness campaigns,
  • and staff redundancies because of declining revenue.

As one interviewee said: “You’ve got a mixture of people trying to respond on the ground, and also people trying to survive, you know, organizations trying to survive, and that’s just been top of the list for most of the time.”

The key message here is that for adult social care providers the pandemic has affected every aspect of organisational life – funding, staffing, volunteers, capacity and ability to operate.


Third sector adult care providers are in the front line of service providers for the vulnerable. 

As one interviewee noted: In light of the COVID-19 crisis “the community sector came to the fore in ways that other sectors couldn’t and wouldn’t and I think the status of the community sector has been enhanced considerably in that it’s not just about what you did for us or what they did for the wider community, it’s the fact that they exist and that they naturally stood up to the plate when lockdown came in and services were required. I mean, half, if not three-quarters, of the public sector was at home”.

This resonates with the earlier, Welsh study that underlined how the third sector is locally-based and community-grounded. It can and did mobilise in the face of the crisis. This applies to both new voluntary sector providers and more established community groups.


The beneficial effects of government suspension of bureaucracy/ red-tape during the crisis. 

For example, a study participant noted: “there was definitely an instant flexibility and rolling forward of funding arrangements for the next 12 months – you know, without too much scrutiny”. To varying degrees, government at all tiers, has demonstrated itself to be flexible and capable of responding to an emergency situation. What is unclear, at this stage, is whether this has been done because of a recognition of the value and contribution of third sector and community groups or because government did not have a choice in the face of emergency-levels of demand for social care services.


What’s the significance of this research? 

It gives us new insights into the challenges facing adult social care providers in Wales and Northern Ireland. It shows that in the view of civil society organisations in Wales, their capacity for survival, effective service delivery and resilience was already compromised prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The emerging Northern Ireland evidence is striking. It tells us that some voluntary sector social care providers, while community grounded and responsive to need, are battling for survival due to funding and staffing issues and that they are stretched in terms of their capacity to deliver services that meet demand. They also acknowledge some government responsiveness to their needs – including over-riding bureaucratic rules and regulations to expedite their response to care in the context of COVID-19.


These findings are part of written evidence submitted to the Welsh Parliament’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.

This research was undertaken as part of: ‘Trust, human rights and civil society within mixed economies of welfare’, a project in WISERDs Civil Society Research centre led by Professor Ian Rees Jones.