07/01/2015 06:04 GMT | Updated 08/03/2015 05:59 GMT

We Need to Talk About Social Care

Over the past few days the news agenda has been dominated by the highest A&E waiting times in a decade and political debate around funding for the NHS.

We have had the opening blows of the longest election in years. Labour are warning that they are the only party that cares about the NHS whilst the Conservatives are focusing on their credibility to run the economy. Welcome to General Election 2015 and the next four months of arguments, counter arguments and counter-counter arguments. Everything else risks being a sideshow.

But what's being lost in the run up to the 7th May is social care. And it's something we really need to talk about.

At some point in our lives we will need to call on social care, which is the heart of the problem. Yes, we all know someone who receives social care support but unlike the NHS, social care is not used universally experienced or consistently used by everyone during a lifetime. And when they do need social care people are often negotiating services for the first time and don't know what to expect.

At the end of last year the Care Act was introduced which is a landmark piece of legislation for social care. For the first time it looks at both health and social care and crucially takes in to account the general wellbeing of those that need social care. Social care should be an election issue and something that we are all concerned about.

We also choose to ignore that a significantly growing number of people need more sustained need for care and support, namely people with disabilities, mental health needs, children and families and older people. And, it is those regular users of social care that are the least willing and least able to articulate their needs, and place demands on politicians. People who are deafblind and have sensory impairments and their families, who do manage to access services, speak of the necessity of persistence in order to access the help they need; people speak of battling against services.

Whilst social care services make a huge contribution to delivering social justice and promoting equality of opportunity, the future role of social care has long been overlooked by government and remains unrecognised by the public at large. The world of assessment (often repeat ones) eligibility criteria, and a fragmented service response, in contrast to services that are free at the point of delivery, remains unknown and frankly not understood by enough politicians.

Social care has a central role in delivering cost effective, early intervention services. However, frequently there is a greater commitment to short-term cures such as the Better Care Fund or looking after people in crisis, rather than long term crisis prevention and enabling people to live full independent lives in the community. This is where the link to the NHS comes in. As people struggle on without the care they need they might become more susceptible to falls, or struggle with nutrition and a healthy diet, leading to hospital admissions and an increased burden on the NHS.

Sadly it would appear that social care remains a poor relation of the NHS, lacking both political clout and financial resources. It doesn't need to be that way. Let's reframe social care as a universal public service: social care services available for all people who will inevitably need them at some point in their lives, with more intensive levels of support for people who need them most and now. Wouldn't that be a good place to start a general election debate?