Do your duty

While most social care workers are enjoying a well-earned break, spending time with family and friends, tucking into festive fare and generally enjoying the benefits of the office closing down for Christmas, spare a thought for that strange nocturnal breed of social worker who is out and about supporting service users in crisis over the holidays.

Emergency duty teams (EDT) provide a social care response to callers whose needs cannot wait until the next working day. Because this year the bank holidays follow on from a weekend, EDT workers will be covering sometimes large geographical areas for at least 114 continuous hours over Christmas – with New Year to follow.

“It will be another long one,” says Chris Hadley, service manager, Derby City Care Line. “My team will need to come in early on Friday to deal with the fax spewing pages everywhere and the e-mail box will be full with information about clients who are likely to need help.”

The holiday certainly has its characteristics. “One often notices something of a cumulative effect,” says Martin Smith, team manager, Buckinghamshire EDT. “The first day of the holidays we are called with reports of gathering and grumbling discontent; by the second day these have developed into more overt dissatisfactions, demands and criticism; by the third day there might be threats or actual instances of violence; and by the fourth day parents or carers might be demanding that children are removed from their care and the police could have been involved.”

The Emergency Social Services Association (Essa) conducted a survey among members of last year’s workload (see background box). “If these figures are representative,” says Glen Williams, manager Sefton EDT and chair of Essa, “then well more than 37,000 referrals will have been dealt with over the two-week holiday period along with 3,000 visits.”

The sample confirms December as the busiest month. “EDTs cover more hours during this month,” says Williams. “But the nature of the referrals also changes as we become more an extension of daytime services as well as an emergency one.”

He adds: “Getting things safely through to the next working day cannot entirely apply when covering five days. Throw in a flu increase, icy weather making it slippery, and a few burst pipes in the home and we have our significantly busiest month.”

Back-up support is crucial. “A lot of planning goes into ensuring that the area shutdown runs smoothly,” says Hadley. “We already have phone numbers of senior managers and details of any available extra services, such as night shelter spaces. Luckily, we’ll also have skeleton crews from adult and children’s services on standby to field some of the work on Friday afternoon and the following Wednesday. But laden with extra supplies of caffeine and chocolate, we’re ready to take on anything that comes our way!”

The expectations of the season also bring unique challenges. “EDT workers become very aware of the pressure that families feel to have a wonderful time together,” comments Smith. “When family members are separated and relationships strained by contact arrangements touch papers are in place, just waiting to be lit.”

According to Williams, it seems domestic violence decreases over Christmas. “I am reliably informed by Women’s Aid workers,” he says, “that mothers are determined to get through the festivities and the school holidays as it is easier to protect their children. When the children return to school, that’s when domestic violence referrals are more likely to arise.”

Owing to the nature of their work, EDTs rarely encounter much of the goodwill generally on offer. Says Smith: “EDT workers will often be regaled with intricate details of complex situations with callers imploring – demanding – that the worker sees things their way, takes their side and helps to bring about their desired outcome. It’s a time of year that the perspectives on human nature afforded by EDT work are shown to be rich, diverse and multi-faceted.”


  • Assume the Friday “collective clearing of consciences” will mean lots of referrals arrive at EDT before the daytime teams go off for Christmas.
  • Make sure that whoever is responsible for the building doesn’t shut the heating off over the bank holidays.
  • Make sure the solicitor is at the police station before setting off.

  • Leave it to the daytime teams to sort out – they don’t need prompting to send up-to-date information through.
  • This Police and Criminal Evidence Act interview will only take five minutes!

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