The proportion of councils reporting high numbers of social workers not working due to Covid-19 rose last month following a sustained fall since May, a Department for Education (DfE) survey has found.
Four per cent of local authorities said more than 10% of social workers were not working due to the pandemic from 19-21 October, up from 2% at the start of last month and 1% in early September, the latest results from the DfE’s ongoing research into Covid-19’s impact on children’s services has shown.
The rise, revealed in the wave 12 results from the department’s vulnerable children and young people survey, follows an ongoing decline from a high of 13% of local authorities in May.
There has been a similar trend in relation to children’s residential care staff, in relation to whom 11% of councils reported that a tenth of the workforce was off due to Covid from 19-21 October, up from 8% at the start of the month.
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Local authorities who were in tier two and tier three of the government’s system of restrictions that came into force in mid-October told the DfE that they were beginning to experience issues with staff availability, with one authority reporting wider teams having to self-isolate due to one worker having a positive test, with the NHS contact tracing app being a driver for this.
Councils redeploying staff to fill gaps
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England said it was concerned about the DfE’s findings, adding: “A depleted workforce – through no fault of individual social workers following national guidelines – increases the pressure on teams working hard in already difficult circumstances to safeguard children and families.”
Rachael Wardell, chair of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services’ (ADCS) workforce development policy committee, said that “most local authorities have responded to any workforce shortages by redeploying their existing staff to fill gaps because those staff are already familiar with local arrangements and systems”.
Both associations raised concerns about the risk of workforce depletion amid the expected rise in referrals to children’s services this winter.
Wardell said that the ADCS anticipated a “peak in referrals to children’s services [was] yet to come, and when it does this will put added pressure on a workforce that was already under strain pre-Covid-19, particularly if the number of social worker absences continues to rise”.
BASW England added: “With the winter flu season upon us, the concern is that the problem will increase… A stable, well-resourced and fully supported workforce is needed to manage anticipated rises in referrals over the next few months.”
Referrals to children’s services had been expected to spike, following the return of children to schools in September, after being well below average during the first months of the pandemic. However, those waves of the DfE survey that have been reported since has shown that referrals have been lower than the average for the equivalent period from 2016-18 since September. Wave 12 showed that referrals for 5-11 October were 6% down on the 2016-18 average
Wardell said she hoped the current lockdown would reduce transmission of the virus, meaning that fewer social workers would be off work, but reiterated ADCS’s calls for a national recruitment campaign, “which tackles longstanding stereotypes head on and clearly articulates that good social work helps change lives for the better”, to tackle workforce gaps.