AN army of volunteers is needed to help look after elderly and frail people in the community as medical bosses grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, according to Scotland’s shadow health secretary.

As more hospital beds will be needed for coronavirus victims, patients who are fit to go home should receive assistance from volunteers who can carry our many non-medical tasks.

Currently more than 1,000 medically fit patients are "bed-blocking", unable to leave because there is nowhere suitable to go to receive care.

But Scottish Conservative health spokesman, Miles Briggs, believes now is the time for a complete overhaul of how social care is provided to elderly and disabled people.

He warned that the situation is going to get worse as the virus takes hold and action is needed now to unblock the system.

He said: “I have had emails from constituents, some of whom have non-medical skills, who want to assist.

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“Those sort of people could be enlisted to help. It’s something we should be looking at immediately."

Mr Briggs said the workforce could be used to carry out some quite basic tasks, such as delivering goods or cleaning – not medical roles, which would be carried out by professionals in the community.

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He added: “There will be a need for a voluntary social care capacity if we end up anywhere near where people worry we could (through a coronavirus peak)."

The Scottish Government says it needs 380 intensive care beds in order to look after coronavirus patients.

But delayed discharges, when people remain in hospital when medically fit to go home, take up 1,379 beds across Scotland – according to a hospital census in December.

This included 400 people who had been waiting six weeks or more to leave hospital – and this is before the added pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said she had “set a goal of reducing those by at least 400 by the end of this month”.

Ms Freeman has stressed that social care provision is “vital at the best of times” and is “absolutely critical in these times”, admitting that there will be increased demand for services.

However around 110,000 people are already receiving social care across Scotland, before the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.

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Reports have indicated that some wards in Scotland are being cleared to free up space for an expected influx of coronavirus patients – while Scotland now has patients being treated in intensive care units, suffering with the virus.

Plans have been started to recruit former health workers to come back and help their former colleagues in the NHS – but nothing formal has been brought forward to expand the non-medical auxiliary workforce.

Coalition of Care and Support Providers has issued a warning of “a sector managing in the face of increased pressures” and stressed that 88 per cent of employers are “still reporting either some or a lot of difficulty in recruiting suitable staff”.

Mr Briggs has raised concerns that “people who are self-isolating become even more isolated” after the elderly have been urged to reduce their social contact significantly to protect them from the virus.

Scotland’s already stretched social care system is set to face even more pressure during the pandemic. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has warned that "those who work in our health and social care services will be tested like never before".

Mr Briggs added: “Edinburgh is in the middle of a social care crisis. We don’t have the staff to make our social care work at the moment – so how can we do it amid this?

“The care home capacity is not there so we really need to see a different model of care. At some point if we see our NHS not managing, we are going to have to look at a completely different model of care. That could mean key workers being deployed to give that care.

“I think we need to deploy that now.”

The coronavirus outbreak will inevitably mean that some health and social care workers will have to self-isolate.

The Scottish Government is prioritising frontline health staff for testing and they are to be classed as key workers to enable them to continue coming to work without the stress of finding childcare solutions.

With around 60,000 vulnerable people in Scotland being reliant of visiting care workers, these pre-existing problems could be compounded.

More than 5,500 of these elderly or disabled people are in Glasgow.

But Glasgow City Health and Social Care Partnership has now cut home care services by 60 per cent due to staff absence brought on by the pandemic.

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Add to that around 35,000 people who are currently in care homes and around 16,000 who are in hospital but require tailored care across Scotland.

Mr Briggs said: “A lot of communities are trying to provide support for elderly individuals who are self-isolating.

“I think for the most vulnerable people with complex health conditions, we are going to have to look towards a different model.

“I hope that can be coordinated as people will have the skillsets.”

Mr Briggs added: “If vulnerable people are starting to self-isolate, there’s no point just giving it a go.

“People need to understand they have the right equipment if that’s going to work.

“We can’t just send someone in when they are feeling sorry for them and they could infect them.

“We need to start working on that to make sure our social care services can be sustained.”

In Edinburgh, a control centre has been set up to allow social care bosses to focus on enabling patients to leave hospital – but different methods of providing support will need to be found.

The capital’s health and social care leaders have drawn up long-term plans to offer more care in the community, but that reality is some time away.

Judith Proctor, chief officer of the Edinburgh Health and Social Care Partnership, stressed that the coronavirus outbreak “presents significant challenges” to how experts “deliver health and social care to people in the community”.

She stressed that the organisation is “looking at other ways we can provide support for people if that is what we need to do”.

She said: “We know that individuals and their families will also be thinking about what plans and support they can put in place and that is sensible.

"We've also set up a control centre so that we can co-ordinate our response and we are working to secure capacity to support people who are ready to leave hospital.

“They are either able to go home or, for a temporary period, to a homely setting such as a care home.

"We've already made the very difficult decision to close day centres and day hospitals and in our care homes we are practicing physical isolation for our residents. There will likely be some other changes to our services but we will do our best to communicate them as clearly and as quickly as we can.

“We continue to do our utmost to care for those with the most critical needs in care homes and in the community within the available guidance from the government. We would really appreciate the understanding of the public just now as we all face an unprecedented situation."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government, Cosla, Integration Authorities and social care providers are working collectively to prioritise social care support to the most vulnerable in these unprecedented circumstances.

“Extensive work is already under way to put in place arrangements to increase social care workforce capacity, access to protective equipment and the best possible targeted clinical advice from the Chief Medical Officer.

“Making sure patients don’t spend any longer in hospital than needed relies on the joint work of health boards and local councils – and this is delivered through the Health and Social Care Partnership, who are working hard to ensure all patients are discharged to the right place of care as soon as possible.

“We are actively engaging with all partnerships to support and monitor progress. Clear action plans to address delays are in place and we are seeing good progress already being made.”