by Alex Turner, Alice Blackwell and Charlotte Carter
As with most areas of society in the UK and beyond, adults’ and children’s social care have watched normality dissolve with the rapid spread of Covid-19.
The illness, caused by a new coronavirus that emerged in the Wuhan province of China late last year, has caused governments across the world, including the UK’s, to announce measures restricting daily life the like of which have rarely seen outside of wartime.
Many citizens are being asked to self-isolate – for seven days if you have the symptoms of fever or a new, continuous cough, or 14 days if you live with someone who has the symptoms – and everyone is being asked to restrict social contact to a minimum.
Schools will close, for an indefinite period from today (20 March), to try to halt the spread of the disease, which causes respiratory infection that can develop into fatal pneumonia. Social work and social care staff have been identified as ‘critical workers’ for whom provision for their children will still be made available if needed in order to enable them to work.
Routine social care inspections have already been suspended until further notice across adults’ and children’s services. Meanwhile emergency legislation has been introduced that provides for recently retired social workers, or those otherwise out of practice, to return to the profession via a temporary register, as well as removing large swathes of councils’ duties under the Care Act so they can prioritise urgent cases.
On 19 March, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that £1.6bn, out of a £5bn fund pledged by the chancellor Rishi Sunak, would be provided to local authorities to tackle coronavirus pressures, much of which will be taken up by adult social care. A further £1.3bn will be avaiable to facilitate discharges from hospital, with the aim of freeing up 15,000 beds by next Friday (27 March).
But how has the wider social care sector been responding to a rapidly changing situation? What good practice is out there, and what concerns are pressing on people’s minds?
What are social workers’ concerns?
Since the coronavirus outbreak ramped up, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has been surveying practitioners about their workplace challenges and fears, as well as to gather examples of best practice.
The survey, which is still ongoing and which Community Care will report further on in due course, has received more than 700 responses at the time of writing.
Many social workers told BASW they were concerned about how to carry out statutory duties in the face of mass population isolation – fears that other social workers have also expressed to Community Care.
Coverage of the coronavirus crisis
“In children and families’ services there is a major concern on how to safeguard families if they can’t meet with social workers,” BASW said in a statement. “The risks of family abuse, neglect and domestic violence may increase with school closures and adults may be more at risk in isolation. Social workers need to know the implications for registration if they are unable to meet duties, timescales or usual legal compliance during this crisis.”
BASW’s statement also called for more clarity on protocols and resources for safe work in all contexts, including by protecting workers who have or care for anyone with an underlying health condition from carrying out client-facing work. It added that social workers must be given priory access to scarce supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitiser, in order to minimise risks both to professionals and the people they support.
“Governments across the UK have been focused on healthcare. They now need to show equal commitment to social care and social workers,” said Ruth Allen, BASW chief executive.
“Social workers must be supported to safeguard people at particular risk of harm, isolation and neglect during this period and to protect rights and ethical practice in this emergency and for the long term,” Allen said.
What has employers’ response to Covid-19 been?
The picture captured by BASW’s survey is illustrative of a week in which employers have scrambled to make practice changes in order to safeguard workers and service users. Few individual councils or children’s services trusts responded in detail to requests by Community Care to share their contingency planning for protecting their workforce and services during the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s clear though that many employers have implemented home working and made use of mobile technology to manage day-to-day communications including, where possible, virtual meetings. We have heard from some social workers about employers pooling resources to ensure that where team members – or their families – are in groups at high risk from Covid-19, essential visits have been carried out by others.
“Local authorities are thinking creatively and using online resources to protect their workforce and ensure business continuity, and several have created a rota system for homeworking,” said Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network (PCFSWN), who also provided a list of ongoing work by the network.
Claudia Megele, chair of the Principal Children and Families Social Worker Network (PCFSWN), said that since the onset of the coronavirus crisis the network had been engaged in a range of ongoing activity:
- Sharing experiences of social workers on the ground among the network and with the Department for Education and the chief social worker for children and families, Isabelle Trowler.
- Sharing examples of moving practice online and using virtual spaces, including for visits, child protection conferences and meetings.
- Highlighting the need for greater support for practitioners as a big issue within some local authorities where there has been insufficient investment in technology and digital practice, meaning many social workers have been downloading free apps and using these as an informal method for communication and in practice.
- Sharing examples of different tools and platforms that could be used by practitioners and how to use them most effectively.
- Sharing good practice and recommendations for home visits in cases where they need to be undertaken.
- Sharing PSWs’ views on proposed changes to legislation with the DfE, in order to reduce some administrative burdens and provide more flexibility for social workers and local authorities to focus on urgent cases.
- Outlining areas of concern for newly qualified social workers as well as those on student placements and raising this with Social Work England, including by suggesting solutions around how placements and the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) could change.
- Discussing with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) about how social workers in other countries are dealing with the crisis and what we can learn from them.
“The challenge is how to do our work and remain connected with children and young people and their families when there is increasing need for social distancing,” Megele added. “Many meetings, functions and services have moved online but the speed of implementation depends on local authorities’ investment in technology, and practitioners’ confidence and readiness to use technology and digital practice.”
Beverly Latania, Megele’s counterpart at the national Adult Principal Social Worker network, said that where employers have no option but to be office-based, employers had taken measures to spread staff out to minimise the risk of virus transmission.
“[Councils are] using Skype to link in with providers or stakeholders – customers and carers,” she said. “They are commissioning short-term care packages without full face-to-face assessments at this difficult time.”
What have sector bodies said?
While individual local authorities are responsible for managing their own responses to the Covid-19 epidemic, sector-wide bodies have been issuing advice.
‘The situation is under constant review’
Birmingham children’s services trust, which has delivered services in the city since 2018, was one of the few statutory sector providers to respond in detail to questions from Community Care about contingency planning.
A spokesperson said the trust was prioritising services, including direct social work, the wellbeing of vulnerable care leavers, homeless 16 to 17-year-olds, fostering and adoption, and residential care.
“Staff are undertaking risk assessments of open cases to identify children who need to continue to be seen frequently and those whom it may be possible to see at reduced frequencies,” it said. “We know we will have to cease some activities and we are planning for that eventuality, for example around training, audits, practice evaluation and non-essential meetings and visits.”
“To help staff who need or are able to work at home we are supporting them and their managers to test their connectivity, equipment and software in situ at home,” the spokesperson said. “Any additional requirements are being responded to with urgency. We have reinforced safe lone working arrangements, such as reporting in after visits.”
The spokesperson said the organisation was using tools such as Microsoft Teams and Skype to communicate, and supporting staff working from home to remain in close contact with their immediate teams and others with whom they work.
“Data is being captured on the individual circumstances of all employees including sickness, self-isolating, staff with care responsibilities, staff with health vulnerabilities and so on,” the spokesperson said. “We have a currently low, but growing number of staff affected. That will inform our ongoing planning and deployment of resources.”
“A substantial effort has gone into informing partner agencies about our plans and agreeing joint responses with agencies where appropriate,” the spokesperson added. “The severity of the challenge is such that the situation is under constant review.”
Meanwhile the trust’s fellow non-local authority provider, Achieving for Children, will be shutting core services at youth and children’s centres across Kingston, Richmond and Windsor and Maindenhead before the end of the month, with the latter repurposed “to accommodate vital support for vulnerable families”.
Within the workforce, about 10% is self-isolating and as many as can are working from home, leaving emptier offices that enable staff to distance themselves from each other. Video conferencing is being used for meetings, including with partner organisations.
In partnership with the Local Government Association and Care Provider Alliance, the Association of Directors of Adults Social Services (ADASS) has posted a guidance note for local authority commissioners putting forward ways in which they can alleviate coronavirus pressures on services.
“At what is a difficult time for many of us, our shared focus must be to ensure that all of us have access to high quality safe and compassionate care, when and wherever we need it,” said James Bullion, ADASS vice-president. “For those of us who are older, disabled or caring for someone who needs care and support this is even more important, particularly a time of such great uncertainty.”
“Times of crises can bring the best in people but can also lead some of us to make decisions we wouldn’t usually make,” Bullion added. “It is important we get the right balance of risk in relation to coronavirus, with risk in relation to information and advice, people’s choice and control, quality monitoring, and making sure that services and supports are safe, especially as inspections have been suspended, in order to protect those of us that need it most.”
The LGA, Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) and Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) have also posted advice pages for members, collating information from both local and central government.
In a statement on the ADCS website, the outgoing president, Rachel Dickinson, said the organisation was logging coronavirus-related issues raised by members and feeding them into discussions with the Department for Education. Two of these included concerns over already scarce residential placements for children, and over emergency social work registrations to mitigate workforce shortages.
What about social work regulation?
The temporary register that the Coronavirus Bill will enable Social Work England to set up is designed to address these issues. The regulator has put out guidance for social workers, employers, higher education institutions and students on how to manage the crisis, and how it will support them to do so.
It has urged employers to only refer high-risk fitness to practise cases – where there are allegations of abuse or serious safeguarding concerns – and will delay investigating lower-risk cases to free up the workforce to deal with coronavirus.
In its information for practitioners, Social Work England said that its regulatory standards were “designed to be flexible and to provide a framework for decision-making in a wide range of situations”.
“We recognise that the individuals on our register may feel anxious about how context is taken into account when concerns are raised about their decisions and actions in very challenging circumstances,” the guidance said. “Where a concern is raised about a registered professional, it will always be considered on the specific facts of the case, taking into account the factors relevant to the environment in which the professional is working.”
In relation to the education sector, it said: “Students on placements make an important contribution to local social work services as part of their teams and work environments. We encourage students currently on placement to continue their work to support the delivery of vital services wherever it is safe and appropriate to do so.
Social Work England’s guidance notes added: “Evaluating the appropriateness of continuing a placement will require conversations between multiple parties, including the student themselves whose health and wellbeing will be of paramount importance.”
The regulator suggested that higher education establishments (HEIs) consider postponing any placements due to begin in April 2020.