More than half of councils in England are resorting to exceptional measures to ration social care, a survey has found.
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 is forcing so many staff to take sick leave or self-isolate that the systems can no longer cope with rising demand, according to council chiefs.
They dubbed the situation “a worsening national emergency”.
Carers have increased the hours of homecare delivered to older people to record levels, councils report – but they still cannot keep up with the numbers requiring care.
More than half of directors of social services who responded to the survey said that in at least some cases they were having to temporarily limit the care normally provided, leave people without their usual social contact or ask families to step in to help.
Stephen Chandler, president of the Association of Directors of Adults Social Services (Adass), said: “We warned before Christmas that we were heading into a national emergency for social care. The sobering reality of that is now becoming starkly clear.
“Every council is taking extraordinary steps and a majority say they are having to prioritise the most basic and essential care in at least some areas for some of the time.”
A previous survey by the charity suggested that councils had increased the amount of homecare being provided by 15 per cent in just three months last year.
But more than 400,000 people were waiting for assessment or review of their care needs or for packages of support to be provided.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus and pay rises in other sectors have worsened a shortage of workers, with more than 100,000 vacancies nationwide.
Agencies that employ them say that on average 14 per cent of their staff are off sick or isolating.
The new survey found that 49 councils are taking at least one exceptional measure to prioritise care and assess risk for at least some of their area for some of the time.
Council chiefs said the shortages mean, for instance, prioritising life-sustaining care such as supporting someone to eat and remain hydrated over supporting someone to get out of bed or complete other activities.
In some cases staff are unable to review risks and are forced to leave people with dementia, learning disabilities or poor mental health isolated or alone for longer periods than usual.
Mr Chandler said: “These are decisions that no-one wants to take, and many are unacceptable. They are drastic measures and must not become, the norm.
“Opportunities were repeatedly missed to ensure that adult social care would be robust enough to withstand the challenges posed by Omicron.
“Any money that has been forthcoming, though welcome, has been too little, too late.”
The association is calling for the government to promise at least £7bn extra a year, rising to £9bn by 2024-25, and a social care minimum wage equal to that paid by the NHS for similar work.
It says a larger share from the new health and social care levy due to be added to national insurance from April should go to social care.
The government said it was doing everything possible to support care staff.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Care staff are working incredibly hard and we are doing everything we can to support them, including with a £462.5m recruitment fund, expanding the Health and Care (Worker) visa scheme, and our ‘Made with Care’ recruitment campaign.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we have made available more than £2.9bn in specific funding for adult social care.
“More than 50 million PCR and 142 million LFD kits have been delivered to care homes and we have invested a further £478m to support safe and timely hospital discharges to get patients into the best place for their care and support to continue.”