Covid-19: how has social work responded to the coronavirus crisis?

We recap on a week of turbulence for adults' and children's services as the sector is forced onto the back foot by the growing pandemic

Image of coronavirus (credit: Romolo Tavani / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Romolo Tavani / Adobe Stock)

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.

“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.

Network activity

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.

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16 Responses to Covid-19: how has social work responded to the coronavirus crisis?

  1. BB March 20, 2020 at 5:33 pm #

    Leadership from SWE would be very helpful – they are very quiet both publicly and to those on the SWE register.

    What about statutory tasks? While different Local Authorities are putting in plans, these are duties required by law. There needs to be leadership from those who have the authority to make changes.

    Social workers on the ground are working so hard to support their service users, carers and colleagues.

    • The scouse social worker March 26, 2020 at 5:17 pm #

      SWE/BASW should put pressure on LA’s & NHS to STOP the practice of ‘hotdesking’ I was a SW in NHS and expressed my concern it was unhygienic and potentially dangerous – the keyboards/monitors/mouse were disgusting and never cleaned, not to mention sometimes no computers available to complete my work – only to be told ‘hotdesking is our policy’

      …and shockingly I know the practice continues, even now, an absolute blatant disregard for health and safety of workers

  2. Adrian March 20, 2020 at 5:38 pm #

    Normality has NOT dissolved in care homes – it can’t -we have to go on , we cannot work from home, there are too few resources to pool. NHS staff get special hours at supermarkets, care home workers do not, the Government is paying 80% of the wages of thos unfortunate enough to have been laid off, which is great, but social care staff are expected to just carry on. I will have to close my care home even to essential visiots by Wednesday if we don’t get hand sanitizer, whilst NHS are getting government supplies. Social care continues to be the cinderella service and care homes even more so than social work.

    • Claire March 31, 2020 at 12:42 pm #

      There is a clear and unjustified differential in how our society values NHS workers vs Social Care staff in the UK today which has been badly highlighted during this pandemic.

      NHS workers are applauded, praised, tested and given preferential treatment, when ‘front line’ social care staff, on the whole, are not. Despite putting themselves at risk, to keep vulnerable adults and children safe from harm on a daily basis.

      I understand that hospital staff work on shifts, meaning that they can find it harder to get shopping during these difficult times, but this doesn’t extend to all NHS staff by any means. And it does extend to some Social Care workers. This needs to change.

  3. alisn grant March 21, 2020 at 9:09 am #

    And we still hotdesk

  4. Brenda Cote March 21, 2020 at 1:15 pm #

    As a Social Worker in a Mental Health team, I am currently in self-isolation. Our Trust has clear guidance with regards to working with families. We have rag rated our cases by routine, essential and critical. Whilst I understand the differences between our statutory roles, I was astounded this week when I took part in a telephone conference call to discuss the monitoring and support for a new mother and baby. It was clear that local authority professionals were making decisions without considering the Covid-19 risks to both the mum and baby. The strategy of introducing different members of staff on a daily basis to visit this mum and baby, no mention of protective gear (we will be wearing masks, gloves, aprons if we do home visits), no reference to Covid-19 was alarming.
    Common sense must prevail. Local authorities need to support staff, to have clear guidelines and some flexibility with how they manage cases. Technology and other platforms need to be made available. Rag rating of cases is important. It is clear that there are different political and economic priorities as well as inconsistent practices in Local Authorities. At this time, I appreciate working for the NHS. Our guidelines may be interpreted as risk averse but I would rather feel secure and supported rather than work in a “business as usual” environment.

  5. Louise manns March 21, 2020 at 2:30 pm #

    All LA’s need a unified response to the current situation rather than scrapping around all delivering very different responses. Some LA’s are really considering staff by asking them to declare underlying health issues other LAs are not and expecting staff to still go out and visit families. We should be provided with a robust response from social work england who we pay our registration to.

  6. dk March 23, 2020 at 11:20 am #

    My concern is that the, for me, obvious question does not appear to have been entertained; is it in the best interests of individual vulnerable children and public health overall to persevere with fulfilling statutory obligations? If I get my Child Protection visits done but traipse COVID-19 across my borough and into dozens of already fragile homes in the process, how am I really helping? Why are we not considering the damage social workers, all with the very best moral and statutory intentions, might be doing by continuing to discharge their duties?

    I’d have some questions about the safety awareness and risk management of any parent who let me into their home while knowing where I’ve been.

    • L.Bell March 24, 2020 at 1:59 am #

      The comments above are spot on. In an attempt to continue in a ‘business as usual’ mindframe, almost scorning those as ‘workshy’ who question the ethics and safety of doing so, we are wholly letting our children, families and staff down.

      I have been appalled by the lack of leadership within my childcare team. Our approach has been indecisive, lazy and confusing but worse than that; arrogant and careless of staff and families alike.

      The lack of creativity and common sense has been eye opening and unforgettable. We have not been leaders, planning sensitively yet decisively. We have been like rabbits in the headlights, scared to make sensible decisions or rather scared to trust our workers and front line managers to do so, forgetting that they are the most skilled and competent in evaluating risk and taking suitable action.

      I agree with the commenter from the mental health team above who is thankful to be managed by the NHS. I wonder if some of the failures in senior leadership in my childcare team, where I have worked as front line manager for many years, are reflective of the quick promotion of relatively inexperienced staff to senior positions. Sadly their immaturity is now becoming dangerous.

      There are so many creative ways we can support our families during these unprecedented times. An extremely high level of monitoring and support can be done over the phone including through videocalls. We can support families who are struggling practically and emotionally through tapping into local resources which have been inspiring to learn about recently. We can talk at length to them, including the children and bolster their emotional resilience and family protective factors. Some families will need visits which may result in the need to move children, but we cannot and should not be physically entering people’s houses where not absolutely necessary.

      As childcare social workers and managers we need to be reflexive, thoughtful and creative, especially now. More senior managers must not be bean counters – they must be bold and supportive.

      In this very disturbing time of corinavirus, our case management decison making notes must explain why we have chosen to visit as much as why we have chosen not to visit.

      • CGB April 8, 2020 at 10:33 pm #

        I could have written that myself. Particularly the part about the rapid promotion of those who can give a good interview, yet have been unable to demonstrate competency , knowledge and leadership in the post they were promoted from. Senior managers never seem to learn that the fluent use of doublespeak does not always translate into being a competent leader.

  7. Super ally March 27, 2020 at 12:40 am #

    No one has even mentioned Social Workers in the press. We are the forgotten front line. CP will rise, adult services will be stretched, hospital social work will be dangerous, fostering, adoption and resi all difficult to manage. Little guidance from BaSW or SWE. No-one standing up for social workers. A friend of mine had to pick up an asylum child who had come through iraq, Iran, Turkey, Italy, and France. She picked him up at the police station, no service had PPE even though the risks were huge. Never mind to the poor boys health and the risks to the emergency foster carers. Another friend is locked in a resi home for two weeks after all the workers and kids were found to be positive.

    • Claire March 31, 2020 at 12:45 pm #

      Thank you for recognising this serious issue.

  8. Karen March 29, 2020 at 4:18 pm #

    I have full empathy with you all. I work for a local charity which supports adults with LD in the community and in a work place environment. Our outreach team rightly has stayed open to deliver much needed sopport to the guys who live at home on their own. Our other depts closed including our bespoke service which provide respite etc for families mon to fri.
    Our bosses have agreed to offer emergency cover to continue support to some vulnerable families. Whilst this is imperative maybe by phonecalls home visits if required, we are now being told to drive, collect a client then take them to our premesis for a number of hours to then take them home later. Drive is a minimum of half an hour, how do you keep your expected distance in this? I appreciate people need support but these clients live at home with others. I, like all my colleagues will go above and beyond always, but at what point is putting yourself and others at risk who are currently safer in their homes.

  9. Spouse March 31, 2020 at 9:27 am #

    So far the local authorities are failing to recognise when a social workers duties are putting their own family at risk when they have vulnerable adults or young children in their own home.
    And with the local authorities refusing to give out any ppe or cleaning materials the risk is even higher.

    As key workers some social workers are able to still have access to childcare, will this access still continue in light of th danger posed by no interest from the LA office workers!?

    And when these children no longer have childcare, then of course the LA are of course going to be sympathetic to the fact that you are lo longer available for work…..!

  10. Abraham Matt March 31, 2020 at 7:02 pm #

    Hospital social workers are forced to come to work despite the same work can be carried out while working from home. Traveling in public transport and working in hospitals putting ourselves, patients, vulnerable family members and public at risk

    • Spouse April 2, 2020 at 1:35 am #

      Unfortunately when this issue has been brought up this morning with the local authority pencil pushers, social workers were told if they refuse to attend any visits (essential or otherwise) they can start looking for another job!
      Wheres our ppe? ‘We don’t have to give you it. ‘