The persistent war analogy that has inevitably arisen around tackling Covid-19 has the usual effects of over-simplifying and catastrophising a complex medical, economic and social phenomenon. Yet it also rallies the public to a flag we can all salute. This is a literal flag (around the corner from my home someone has unfurled a homemade NHS flag) and a symbolic one that brings us all out to clap in solidarity about our collective shared values.
But our heroes have to be available and accessible to consciousness. They are Doctors, Nurses and Ambulance drivers who occupy the ‘frontline’ or ‘vanguard’ of the battle.
As the parent of a Biomedical scientist who has been working 12 hour night shifts testing samples to see who does and doesn’t have coronavirus, with all the accompanying risks of handling it (some of his colleagues have become ill), I am struck by the complete invisibility of that profession in the public eye. However, he is able to rally behind the NHS flag.
What strikes me as a social work academic is the invisibility of social work in this rhetoric. Where are our generals and who is raising the standard for social work? Social Workers and Social Care Workers are shielding potential casualties of this war and building the barricades. Local authorities are managing the logistical operations, building temporary pontoons to bridge professional chasms and ensuring the right resources are in the right place at the right time for the troops.
I had an email yesterday from a local authority head of Children & Families social work who told me how his social workers were all pulling together and doing an amazing job in good spirits. I also heard yesterday that care workers in Sheffield have moved into the care home to live with the older people they are caring for. I feel proud to be a social worker and wonder why this narrative isn’t being trailed on BBC Breakfast this morning. I emailed them to ask them to look beyond the brilliant work that the NHS is doing and report on the equally fantastic social work and social care contribution. We’ll see if they do but I think they will need human stories and therefore urge social workers to step forward and provide them.
It is not surprising that social workers are reticent to raise their heads above the parapet. Experience has shown us that the press has a battalion of snipers eager to pick us off one by one. However, it feels that now is a time that we should be able to let the public know about the contribution we are making. The social work troops don’t need rallying. They are already out there doing what they need to do. But we do need our professional leaders to tell the world what they are doing. There are no headlines, no press statements, no clapping in the street for social workers – but there should be.
So come on Chief Social Workers, Directors of Social Services, Social Work England, social work leaders in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, BASW – raise the social work standard and wave it high and long; blow the reveille loudly; lead the anthem for social work and publicly salute your workers.
Joe Smeeton, University of Sheffield