Social work under coronavirus: children’s practitioners report bigger problems than adults’ colleagues

Adults' services staff happier with access to PPE and less likely to report increases in workload during pandemic than children's practitioners

Image of an N95 respirator face mask (credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)
(credit: dontree / Adobe Stock)

Social workers in children’s services have faced a bigger disruption to practice during the coronavirus outbreak than adults’ colleagues, according to responses to Community Care’s survey on the pandemic’s impact.

As reported in our main story on the survey, there was considerable consistency among the almost 500 respondents, across all disciplines, in terms of how they felt Covid-19 had affected their service. Asked to rate the pandemic’s impact, from one to 10, the vast majority returned a score of six or more.

But responses to other questions revealed considerable disparities between adults’ and children’s practitioners.

Looked at across a group of measures – including satisfaction with their employer, access to personal protective equipment and whether they had faced practice situations that made them anxious – people working in adults’ services seemed happier with working life since the onset of lockdown.

Employer approval

As we reported last week, survey respondents’ satisfaction levels with how the councils, children’s trusts and NHS trusts who pay their wages responded to coronavirus were, across all service areas, very positive at 76%.

But while among adults’ practitioners, those approval ratings rose to 83%, for children’s social care practitioners they were 69%.

Some of this disparity may be down to adults’ services having received government guidance on managing pressures arising from pandemic earlier. In the run-up to start of the lockdown, on 24 March, the government legislated to enable councils to suspend certain Care Act duties, providing guidance on how to put this into practice at the end of March.

When guidance on children’s social care’s response followed a few days later, this was criticised for failing to provide a statutory framework for prioritising need. Perhaps reflecting this, children’s workers were far more likely to complain in survey comments about employers’ initially confused responses to the start of social restrictions in late March. The government subsequently implemented, without parliamentary scrutiny, changes to secondary legislation relaxing duties to children in care, prompting a campaign for their reversal by children’s charities, social work leaders and rights bodies, with the support of the Children’s Commissioner for England and Labour.

With Covid-19 fatalities overwhelmingly concentrated among older adults and those with underlying health conditions, local authorities’ resources were geared in that direction from the start.

That was underlined in answers to our questions about changes within services – with 65% of those working in adult social care reporting their operating hours had been extended, compared with 16% of children’s staff.

A handful of respondents in fact complained that their organisation appeared to have overcompensated for an expected surge in demand, and that there was no need for adults’ teams to be operating 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

PPE

Access to PPE, one of the biggest national stories during the pandemic, was naturally a crucially important issue for social workers.

Attitudes were driven in many cases by pure supply issues, and in others by the quality of equipment that eventually arrived.

Again, greater concern was registered by children’s practitioners, with more than half (57%) expressing dissatisfaction with their access to PPE. Some respondents mentioned employers rationing items, or even making social workers buy or make their own.

For comparison, 39% of adults’ practitioners were unhappy with their ability to get their hands on protective kit.

Responses around PPE also revealed striking geographical disparities, which could not be explained purely by regional differences in the proportions of staff from each discipline responding to the survey.

In the North East and London, 69% (85% for adults’, 57% for children’s) and 67% (75% for adults’, 58% for children’s) of respondents respectively said they were satisfied with access to PPE. By contrast, only 37% in the South West (58% for adults’, 18% for children’s), and 39% in the East of England (50% for adults’, 31% for children’s), felt similarly.

Unsafe practice

Clearly, PPE availability has been a key factor in terms of how safely social workers and their colleagues have felt able to practise under pandemic conditions.

Again, our results showed a divide between children’s practitioners (63%) and adults’ (38%) when asked if, since the onset of the outbreak, they had had to carry out duties that caused anxiety around transmitting coronavirus, or being infected by others.

Looking at people’s detailed responses, many practitioners within children’s services said they had had to continue going into situations that had made them nervous, even if PPE had been available.

Some of these related to environmental factors, for instance having to enter hospitals, or small homes – in some instances where individuals have been known to be infected, or to have breached lockdown – or needing to transport people in cars.

Workload

One final area where big differences were apparent between the two sectors was the impact of the pandemic on people’s workloads.

As with responses around risky practice, there was a clear split between the experiences of children’s practitioners, 71% of whom had seen workloads rise, and those in adult social care, 51% of whom had done so.

Some adults’ practitioners commented favourably on being able to catch up on casework, and on staff redeployments and extended hours resulting in services being able to keep on top of coronavirus-related demand. But others warned that the situation was likely to reverse rapidly as restrictions eased, given the suspension of some services during lockdown and people’s general inability to admit others to their homes.

Meanwhile, children’s practitioners cited a wide range of reasons for being busier, with many mentioning that virtual methods of working had increased time-draining administrative tasks. Some social workers warned that domestic abuse referrals were already putting strain on their teams, while others said the inability to complete their involvement with families – in some instances due to court proceedings being suspended – meant their caseloads were inevitably rising.

Because of the relatively small number of mental health social workers and practitioners who contributed to the survey, we have not included them in direct discipline-by-discipline comparisons in this article.

One Response to Social work under coronavirus: children’s practitioners report bigger problems than adults’ colleagues

  1. Anne June 11, 2020 at 5:23 pm #

    Can Community Care run an article and questions on how social care offices will be after Covid 19. Within Wirral there are real concerns over there being no office base or very little meaning the vast majority will need to continue working from home.

    Whilst at this tome there is no choice due to the current pandemic children social workers feel isolated, anxious, stressed, no separation from work and home as no switch off, so worried for newly qualified you need a safe place to come back to and reflect/destress/have
    a cry /get support. Plus the added extra cost of electricity and gas used. I believe you are allowed to claim back £6 from the government per week which is no good especially with the UK weather I most certainly will use more than that when averaged out across a year.