The majority of councils are seeking extra social workers as they expand services to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and face rising staff absences due to sickness or self-isolation, Community Care has found.
A snapshot survey of local authorities with social care responsibilities, to which 22 councils around England replied in detail, revealed that more than two-thirds had plans to source additional social work staff as of this week.
A number of other councils that did not respond have been publishing callouts for staff – including for a broad range of care roles, as well as qualified social work posts – on their websites or via social media.
Meanwhile regional branches of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) are also appealing for people – including social work students – to step up and swell depleted workforces. In the West Midlands, the ADASS regional branch said that across the region 20% of the wider adult social care workforce directly employed by councils was now ill or self-isolating.
That figure mirrored the highest absence numbers reported by councils responding to Community Care, which also highlighted a disparity between adults’ services needing urgent additional resource, and children’s services that for now are more stable but may be starting from a position of being short-staffed.
Situation ‘not yet critical’
Beverley Latania, the co-chair of the Adult Principal Social Worker Network, said that while most councils had not hit the “critical” condition that might force them to make use of provisions to suspend Care Act duties, known as ‘easements’, the situation was changing rapidly.
“The workforce is the biggest element to when we might move into easement, which is why we are currently closely monitoring the situation,” she said. “We understand there is a cohort of individuals who will still require face-to-face contact – with approved mental health professionals (AMHPs), best interests assessors, for hospital discharge, assessments, reviews or support, and with people with health needs where telephone contact is not suitable.
“With a limited workforce available to carry out these roles, local authorities have had to become creative and redeploy staff from all teams within adult social care,” Latania said. “However, the longer Covid-19 goes on, [the greater the] concern that the workforce will not be sustainable internally, and support will need to be looked at.”
Meanwhile, Claudia Megele, Latania’s counterpart at the Principal Children and Families Social Worker (PCFSW) Network, said there were “great variations” among local authorities’ staffing capacities and that it was still too early to assess the impact of coronavirus on employees.
“One thing is certain [though] – with the socioeconomic impact of Covid-19, there will be a significant increase in demand for services and support, which is already evident in increased demand for food banks and specific safeguarding concerns such as domestic abuse,” Megele said. “Therefore, regardless of the current numbers, local authorities will need to expand and enhance both their workforce capacity as well as their services and resources to meet people’s needs and provide much needed support.”
Over 800 signed up to temporary register
Of the 22 councils that answered questions about the state of their adults’ and children’s social care workforce, 15 said they were looking for extra social workers.
Some were focusing on local call-outs and direct contact with former staff, while others were making use of the temporary register and matching scheme recently established by Social Work England and the Local Government Association (LGA) – or were using both methods.
So far, over 800 former social workers have signed up to return to practice through the register, Social Work England confirmed today. Further information will be published in due course about how many councils have signed up to receive temporarily registered practitioners and where practitioners who have signed up are located.
Ian Hudspeth, chair of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said: “The care system is under immense pressure, and councils are doing their best to manage the increase in demand. Some council staff will be self-isolating and additional social workers will be hugely beneficial for councils.
“As people are discharged from hospital and back into the community, we anticipate the demand for social workers will continue to rise, which is why we are working closely with Social Work England and other partners to ensure that qualified social workers can return to the frontline to support their communities.”
‘Bolstering the workforce’
While adult social care was clearly the area where pressure directly associated with Covid-19 was greatest, most authorities seeking extra staff were also looking for children’s practitioners. Several councils said they were looking for specific numbers of practitioners, but most said they were simply looking to build numbers at this point.
“We are appealing for children’s and adults’ social workers to return to the profession and join a temporary bank to support our countywide effort to protect public services during the coronavirus pandemic,” said a Norfolk council spokesperson.
“This is about building capacity and planning ahead to bolster our essential frontline workforce to make sure we can continue to deliver key services to our most vulnerable people,” the spokesperson added. “We are looking for people who can work as part of a bank to cover short-term requirements across the county when needed.”
Meanwhile in the East Midlands, a spokesperson for tiny Rutland council said that despite having no absences to date, the authority was expecting to see children’s services staff become ill and referrals to increase. Many areas have seen a temporary drop-off in new cases while schools have been closed, but this picture is expected to change rapidly as lockdown measures ease.
“We want to ensure we have capacity within our service to manage this and provide a good service to children,” Rutland’s spokesperson said. “Meanwhile in adults’, we are expecting to require increased capacity – particularly in hospital discharge – as well as anticipating staff illness.”
Extended opening hours
In terms of illness figures, only 11 councils were willing to share data, which covered wider social care workforces and mostly included both people who were ill and those self-isolating, many of whom were still working in some form. Many reported figures well below 5% across both children’s and adults’ services, though York and Wigan councils said they had 15% or more staff absent from their normal duties.
Half of councils that responded, however, have already or will shortly be extending their service capacity, in terms of staffing hours, in many cases to seven days a week between 8am and 8pm.
As indicated by Rutland’s response, supporting hospital discharges – an activity that has attracted £1.3bn in direct central government funding, channeled through the NHS – was the most commonly cited reason for this, and a key area where extra staff may be deployed.
But seven councils also indicated they were expanding their children’s services offer during the pandemic.
“We have increased out-of-hours support in children’s services for children who need our care, or for those vulnerable to abuse and exploitation outside the home,” said a spokesperson for Bristol council. The southwestern city is looking for any social worker able to offer more than 18.5 hours a week as it tries to “provide service resilience” during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Other respondents mentioned that widening the range of hours within which children’s practitioners officially work had been carried out, both in order to better support families, and to accommodate staff needs for flexible working while schools are closed.
Several children’s services added that they would need to make use of Social Work England’s temporary register, even with no expanded hours or social workers absent due to Covid-19, simply because they were already operating at a reduced capacity.
Bournemouth Christchurch and Poole council, for instance, said it was looking to cover 10.5 full-time equivalent vacancies to ensure that assessment and child protection functions could operate smoothly over the coming months.
Need for more data
Megele said it was important to consider such complexities when trying to make sense of the shifting workforce challenges faced by employers.
“The number of absences due to illness or otherwise, and whether local authorities are hiring additional social workers, don’t tell us the full story,” she said. “Some local authorities might be hiring for a variety of reasons ranging from increased demand – such as an increase in domestic abuse – or staff absences due to Covid-19, or reduced capacity due to the increased pressure on staff because of working from home, or in anticipation of expected rise in demand, and so on.
“Also, staff absences may be due to multiple issues – self-isolation may be due to Covid-19 or experiencing cold and flu symptoms, and in some cases due to experiencing anxiety.”
In terms of future learning, Megele said it would be helpful to investigate whether there was correlation between the numbers of illness-related absences in local authorities and the impact of Covid-19 among the local population, and whether this was in any way attributable to differences in strategy among LAs. “Obviously, this will require a large enough dataset to allow a meaningful analysis,” she said.