Care workers should be offered £500 bonuses to prevent an exodus of staff this winter, NHS chiefs have said.
NHS Providers urged the Government to offer cash payments to stop staff leaving for Christmas jobs in hospitality, supermarkets and with online firms such as Amazon.
Health bosses said “emergency” action was required within the next fortnight to stem the flow of workers leaving the sector for better paid jobs in retail and hospitality.
They said shortages of staff in social care were fuelling unprecedented pressures on the NHS, which is facing the "most difficult winter in its history".
Social care staff must now be double-vaccinated to work in care homes, with those working in other settings required to have both jabs by April. Care home owners say this has exacerbated a crisis in a sector that already has more than 100,000 vacancies.
NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said shortages of care staff were causing a “deepening crisis” which has left thousands of elderly people stuck in hospitals.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive, said a typical hospital is now unable to use one third of its beds because of the number of medically fit people stuck on wards waiting for help from social care, combined with Covid pressures.
He said: “Colleagues in the social care sector we’ve spoken to think the size of the bonus might need to be a minimum £500, so with 1.5 million social care staff that comes to a total of £750 million, which is a huge amount of money.”
Such sums might not compare with the kinds of “golden hellos” being offered by some retailers in the run-up to Christmas, but were “a price worth paying if it helps keep social care functioning as we need it to through the winter”, he said.
“It is this kind of immediate, emergency action that the Government needs to be thinking about in the next fortnight, because our system has to stop the current flow of people leaving social care going into other industries like retail, hospitality and logistics.
“We know those industries are trying to secure a Christmas workforce, as the next six weeks is where they make a significant amount of their profit. That’s why Amazon and others are paying a substantial bonus.”
The latest official data shows a mounting crisis across the NHS, with the worst accident and emergency performance on record and heart attack victims waiting almost an hour for ambulances.
Ambulance waits are at a record high
More than 55,000 care workers remain unvaccinated and 15,000 have left the sector since May, with fears that staff shortages could fuel closures of care homes.
NHS managers are now drawing up plans to transfer their own staff to social care “for a significant period of time” this winter to tackle a spiralling crisis, Mr Hopson said. The situation was leaving the NHS under unprecedented strain, he warned.
A typical hospital with 500 beds would currently have 75 out of commission due to Covid infection control measures, he added.
Another 50 beds would be filled with Covid patients, while 50 more would have medically-well patients lacking the care needed to be discharged.