Covid-19: lack of pandemic protocols leaves social work playing catch-up, warns BASW chief

Too little 'thinking the unthinkable' at the highest levels has left the sector 'starting from a long way back', says Ruth Allen as social workers call for consistent national guidance around coronavirus

Image of Ruth Allen, the Bristish Association of Social Workers chief executive (credit: BASW)
Ruth Allen, the BASW chief executive (credit: BASW)

The lack of national pandemic protocols has left social work “starting from a long way back” as employers grapple with their responses to the Covid-19 crisis, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has warned.

National and local news stories have this week – in part because of lobbying by the association – highlighted that social workers and social care staff have, like health service colleagues, been left in the lurch by a countrywide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

An ongoing survey being run by BASW, which more than 1,400 practitioners have now completed, put the lack of PPE at the top of a list of concerns that must be addressed in order to support social workers to practise safely.

But many of the other key worries being raised by practitioners centre on the lack of consistent guidance around  crucial areas of work – including keeping themselves and families safe, working out which areas of statutory practice must be prioritised, and where accountability lies if needs cannot be met. Similar frustrations are being voiced every day on social media.

“People have got hold of the PPE thing – social workers are quite rightly saying, ‘It’s not just an issue for doctors but also for us’,” Ruth Allen told Community Care. “But this situation is throwing up the fact that we haven’t had good protocols around infection risk and social work, of which equipment is part – there is no national guidance on social workers’ role in disasters and emergencies.”

BASW has in fact been working up such guidance for some time now, which has Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) signoff and is being tailored for the current situation with a view to publishing it soon. But so far there has been nothing else at national or governmental level.

“With this [situation], we are seeing sort of a slow-motion, much bigger-scale version of the kind of problems we saw with the Grenfell Tower disaster, where there are real problems of co-ordinating responses because there hasn’t been preparation for what happens when the unthinkable happens,” Allen added, stressing that this was despite a great deal of positive work by individual councils and charities.

‘Coherent advice across all contexts’

BASW is now taking part in weekly meetings with the Department for Education (DfE), DHSC and Social Work England, via which social workers’ concerns are being raised.

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and ADASS, and the adult and children’s principal social worker networks are also in communication with the government departments and feeding in practitioners’ perspectives.

Key points from BASW’s coronavirus survey

  • Social workers lack personal protective equipment (PPE), including hand sanitiser, leaving practitioners fearful they could endanger service users.
  • There are concerns over how statutory duties will be fulfilled during the pandemic and associated lockdown measures.
  • Adult social workers have reported issues with care homes refusing new admissions and restricting visits, with people refusing home care packages due to infection fears, and with a lack of planning around informal carers falling ill.
  • Children’s social workers voiced fears over safeguarding children when families are self-isolating, around people experiencing domestic abuse being trapped in abusive environments and over a lack of emergency placements.
  • Some workers reported unsafe or unsuitable working conditions, including being asked to carry out visits as normal, to continue with hotdesking arrangements or to work from home with IT that is not fit for purpose.
  • Social work students have faced uncertainty around whether placements continue, and on what financial support they will receive if qualification is delayed.

“[On the agenda is] the need for clear national guidance for social workers in all settings, and that will become more about drilling down for specific settings, as there are different issues for social workers in different contexts,” Allen said. “I’m also very keen that we consider social workers in multidisciplinary contexts, so they have parity and a common way of working with colleagues at this time.”

She added that adults’ and children’s services’ strategic and operational separation had made the provision of standard lines of advice from government departments more difficult, but that BASW was working to ensure coherent messaging comes out, for example around home visiting and community working.

‘Students are not in a position to make demands’

Another key area of confusion has surrounded social work students on placement, with different approaches being taken by different councils and higher education institutions (HEIs). Many employers are also issuing callouts for students to step into paid or voluntary roles in order to support social workers and communities.

On 26 March Social Work England updated its guidance, which emphasises that “student wellbeing, safety and the need for adequate support and supervision should always be the primary concern when considering whether placements should continue”. The regulator added that where students are engaged either in paid or voluntary roles, these should not be considered as practice placements – but that learning from the roles could be considered retrospectively by HEIs where placements had been curtailed.

“In my view there should be a clear national steer that social work students are not on placement during this period, can work from home and all have a pathway to do so without fear of not being able to complete, or afford to complete studies,” Allen said. She added that the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) was working with Social Work England to clarify the situation.

“If, separately, students want to volunteer or be hired as social work assistants, that’s fine and if universities want to take that into account as relevant experience that may be fine too – but it should be a matter of choice,” Allen said. “Students, if they are in a workplace that isn’t being as ultra-careful as it needs to be, or if they just don’t know stuff because they are students, are not in position to demand things – it’s difficult enough for experienced social workers to make health and safety requirements known.”

‘We are thinking about the aftermath’

Looking beyond the immediate scramble to get abreast of working during this time of coronavirus, Allen said it was crucial to map out the likely changing needs of social workers and people they support as the pandemic moves through different stages. While social workers are likely to keep their jobs, their partners may not, and many may also face the personal impacts of heightened work pressures, sickness or bereavement.

“We are thinking about dealing with things now, at the peak, if we get it [as predicted], and then in the aftermath,” she said. “We are pulling people back around this crisis, they may be very enthusiastic, and that adrenaline will keep them going. But if things pan out in a worst-case scenario, where that will leave the workforce in six months time – will they be motivated, or burnt-out?”

How that pans out will depend not just on the severity of the Covid-19 epidemic but on how social workers and their colleagues in the wider social care workforce are treated by their employers and by national leaders and politicians.

“We will be pushing hard to ensure social workers get good recognition for what they do, during this period and afterwards – recognition, respect, and being treated fairly,” Allen said. “Social workers need a space to offload, supervision, debriefs, all those things must be in place while the emergency is running, and will help them afterwards.”

Coronavirus Act fears

In the current shifting landscape – including, this week, the passing of the Coronavirus Act, which enables key statutory duties to be suspended – Allen said social workers needed more than ever to be able to focus on their core roles, and on keeping themselves able to perform them.

Of the new legislation, Allen said its potential for undermining the Care Act in particular was a “real worry”. But she added that it was crucial practitioners keep in mind that its emergency provisions had not been put into force, and that not all of them would necessarily be triggered.

“As things stand nothing has yet changed around the Care Act and Mental Health Act – if it does, I think our role as social workers, our ethical responsibility, is to try to monitor the impact mitigate it where possible in day-to-day practice,” Allen said.

“As an organisation we’ll keep saying, ‘Your job is to uphold people’s rights, and to be an ethical and moral compass – but the first priority is that people look after themselves so they are well enough to do that.'”

11 Responses to Covid-19: lack of pandemic protocols leaves social work playing catch-up, warns BASW chief

  1. Carys March 28, 2020 at 11:10 pm #

    Integrity is key Ruth!

  2. Jeanne McCarley March 29, 2020 at 11:31 am #

    So we have been advised limited pep but to on l y us if having to do face to face with someone with cover symptoms. My worry is that either I poor person I visit ma y not show symptoms for say 11 days. Of course keeping social distance but is this enough?

  3. nicola morse March 30, 2020 at 9:54 am #

    We have been told to re-locate from our locality offices to a hub working 12 hour shifts on a rota basis. While team members are willing to work longer hours moving us to a hub in a city is going to massively increase the possibility of us contracting Covid 19. There has been no consultation about the new way of working . I am challenging this decision as the Prime Minister has advised that anyone who can work from home should do so.
    Workers have been provided with laptops and mobile phones at great expense to the tax payer but are I guess not trusted to do so. I am taking this issue up with my union UNISON
    I want to “do my bit” but want to protect my own health and that of my husband who is self isolating for 3 months due to an underlying health problem.

    Take care everyone.

  4. Sarah March 30, 2020 at 8:36 pm #

    With respect I would suggest that BASW were no more prepared for this than anyone else – however the article feels somehow finger pointing! Neither you or our registered body have provided much support and neither of you are stepping up for social workers with NO media presence supporting us – please don’t now make this about you when it is about all of us – I feel BASW are a disgrace to the profession right now

    • Alan April 1, 2020 at 2:05 pm #

      Sad to say the bottom line is it gets better to deal with when you realise as a Social Worker no one really gives a moments thought about you. you are expected to achieve more and more ”mandatory” tasks – I know colleges who work late into evening/weekends to keep up. Unrealistic expectations to maintain CPD with threat of being struck off if not maintained.

      Just remember you are just a number to all of them BASW and Social Work England wont do anything for you in my view.

      Your employer wont even give you hand sanitizer.

      They all need to remember there is a shortage of experienced social workers.

  5. Iggy March 30, 2020 at 10:31 pm #

    What I feel is missing is a co-ordinated response from Social Work as a whole stand alone profession.
    The NHS has been rallied and utilised, where as I feel Social worker has been left somewhat lagging.. waiting for a local government call to send. Local government has been slow to respond and it has been the communities which have fought the virus at grass roots. Possibly due to LA’s still having to be budget conscious. I feel this has left Social Work has been disempowered and lost opportunity to offer a strong response to rise up and provide our practical skills working in strong partnership with health, not just Healths poor cousin. It feels as if LA are not utilising their Social Workers effectively. Rather than working from home being a keyboard warrior… let’s be fully out in the battle field!

  6. Anne Brocklesby March 31, 2020 at 11:13 am #

    I think BASW needs to focus on the NEEDS here and now – priority.

    Safeguarding workers and clients needing support.

    Prioritise clients who are at increased risk due to isolating.

    Eg domestic abuse affecting children 👶- huge increase in calls to child line – synchronise joint working

    Eg older people who might not eat or speak to anyone

    Eg mental health- what work are Mental Health Trusts doing and coordinate with peer support services- huge armies of volunteers out there

    Eg Lawyers and police with child care matrimonial (family law) experience need to be mobilised.

    Eg I am married to a family lawyer- I am a qualified social worker. Law Centres also used to working on matters of domestic abuse child care injunctions etc

    Eg self help and self care for professional workers in health and social care – eg debriefing mental health support supervision time out exercise mindfulness meditation 🧘‍♀️ healthy eating and if necessary IT training and essential PPE

    Anne Brocklesby

  7. DKR April 1, 2020 at 6:19 pm #

    The usual pseudo intellectulised analysis and commentary we have learnt to expect from BASW, without any effective commitment to offer prompt support Social Workers by putting pressure upon the Govt or employing Local Authorities to offer practical support, and that of PPE, to practitioners ‘working in the field’ and placing themselves at very real risk.

    This is just a further example of agencies (BASW and SW England) supposedly in place to support the development of education and practice standards but who conveniently ignore the terrible conditions within which practitioners are expected to work ! The developing social and health crisis merely galvanises the current issues faced by practitioners !

  8. Robert Nisbet April 1, 2020 at 8:40 pm #

    Yes ensuring all staff in social care whether managers, social workers, administrators etc are appropriately equipped, protected & supported is important. Yet, what I find singularly absent are organisations including BASW providing a co-ordinating role in ensuring that services across the social care sector can deliver an effective service for the most vulnerable in our communities. I have been trying to offer my services as a social worker (still registered & but not long retired) So far only recruitment agencies have contacted me offering lucrative payments! Is this the best response to such a national crisis! Health & safety is important but proportionally is delivering a service now & for the months to come. Is BASW ‘fit for purpose’ to assist in delivering this! Given the current lacklustre response to date I fear critics of our profession will not be so kind when when hopefully some normality returns & the predictable ‘inquiry industry’ conducts it’s business.

  9. TJ April 3, 2020 at 2:21 am #

    For those thay work in a mental health hospital, and a nursing home.; the increase of individuals in a crisis is hard to ignore. We’re still being placed in close quarters to complete assesments. The individuals in nursing home settings are acting out due to inactivity, and contact with the outside world. As the social worker in high risk areas, I’m expected to ignore precautions to calm those in crisis to ensure the safety of others. This leads to possibly putting myself in danger, and also my family.

  10. LK April 7, 2020 at 8:44 am #

    I agree with this article but want to add that there is no mention of Social Work Assistants who are not regulated by a body which could fight our corner and are right on the frontline and starting to feel like cannon fodder with no protective gear,nowhere to be heard & feeling totally unsupported