The media highlights the stressful and, at times, risky conditions that key workers such as nurses, doctors, shop staff and care providers are facing. The constantly developing situation of Coronavirus (COVID-19) specifically presents social work with our unique range of issues to address, and respond to, bounded by safety issues and tight learning timeframes. We have seen unprecedented levels of demand on social workers, particularly those undertaken statutory home visits, often at times without support and assistance, with limited considerations for mental health, safety and wellbeing. Witnessing the huge needs of so many people is daunting. However, no one, including our government seem to be able to recognise the explicit role of social workers amongst recent achievements and accolades.
Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, we are certainly in need of all the essential services and the hard work that each key worker is doing, with the importance of human relationships vital to this. However, despite being an essential service, social workers are once more not always getting the recognition that we deserve for our interventions when compared to some of the other key worker groups. Similarly, we have seen some real safety issues and workplace practice concerns highlighted from social workers, which have seen a worryingly steep rise in referrals to our advice and representation service. While those who work in the sector are passionate about the changes their practice has made to individual and family lives on a daily basis during this pandemic, politicians and the general media rarely see, or speak about, those positive contributions.
Social workers continue to use all their learned specialist skills, knowledge and intervention methods to support the public and other professionals in this difficult period when the safety of social workers should be paramount. Yet, as we have so often seen, social workers are last in line for Public Protection Equipment (PPE), for extra resources and for media recognition. They are also missing from the countless social media memes and colourful messages that promote ‘clap for carers’ and supporting access to specialist ‘shopping slots’ for frontline staff. Similarly, we are already seeing the promotion for wage raises to social care support staff, nurses and other frontline professionals, but not for social workers.
Amongst all this, the gratitude that social workers have seen from the public and the wider social work community is a constant reminder to us that we are making a difference and using our specialist skills effectively, and in an extremely adaptable way. A busy social worker might not realise the difference that that they are making while in the stressful throes of limited PPE and too few resources that have become all too common during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we are.
Trade unions, professional associations and employers, working together, can make a significant difference to ensure that the effects of the outbreak are minimised. Likewise, if the workforce is upskilled on how to limit transmission, protected and equipped appropriately, then there is no unnecessary panic generated. However, as we have seen this has a limited affect when the PPE resources are just not available, for whatever reason. The constant governmental communications to protect key workers, and the most at risk in our communities, have been undermined by the unhelpful position of ‘not being able to magic up PPE resources’ constantly being put forward.
From the onset, I have been challenging employers, and the government, over inadequate employment advice, the failure to provide enough PPE, and the urgent need to safeguard the specialist social work role in multi-disciplinary teams. The shortage of PPE has been totally unacceptable but hard to challenge significantly when there has appeared to be a national shortage of PPE. However, we all in social work need to continue to push this health and safety issue on behalf of the profession. Daily, the lack of access to PPE has triggered widespread anxiety among social workers, with some workplace practices and general workplace guidance on PPE being totally unacceptable.
We have been active supporting members in a number of COVID 19 situations. A number of interventions have involved concerns from members being asked to work from an office when on duty. Some of the social workers were being instructed, against government advice, to attend the office despite there being adequate technology in place for them to work from home. Employers were quickly contacted highlighting that if there is no valid reason for staff to attend an office environment, then government advice should be adhered to, in the national interest, and offering advice around remote management, including holding meetings, providing supervision and keeping in touch with partner agencies.
Members have also been concerned about their annual leave and often provided with the wrong advice, which we have had to address with employers. New regulations came into force on 26 March 2020, relaxing the rules which govern when annual leave can be carried over. The effect of the regulations is that social workers who have not taken their statutory four weeks’ annual leave entitlement, due to COVID-19, can now carry it over into the next two leave years. This has been a real issue with cancelled annual leave and amended working patterns.
Social workers have been asked in some areas to do personal or home care and our involvement has been that, if assessed as appropriate, then workers should carry out these roles with the appropriate training, guidance and equipment specified in Public Health guidance. We are in unprecedented times dealing with an unprecedented situation but we have assisted a number of members to ask for this clarity such that they can get the support and training to enable them to undertake personal care tasks and administer medication.
Some members have bravely been refusing to undertake social work tasks (home visits, journeys with service users, attending police stations, visiting foster carers and hospitals) that they are assessing as unsafe due to the lack of PPE, and we have supported them during this process. Employers must be aware of their specific obligations to social workers regarding unsafe work refusal and ensure that such refusals are appropriately handled in full compliance with occupational health and safety legislation. I have been busy writing to Local Authorities emphasising this. The present problem though is that The Employment Rights Act 1996, is not sufficient to deal with the scale of the crisis at hand.
Although normal practices may not be feasible, we know from regular contact with our members that social workers are trying to practice and adapt according to ethical and social work values, despite major challenges. I applaud this for it is still important to act sensibly, professionally and make a difference.
After the pandemic and the subsequent crisis, society will not be the same as before. As a profession comprising over 100,000 UK registered social workers, consisting of highly skilled professionals, the social work voice will continue to serve the at risk, as before, during, and beyond this crisis. While austerity and cuts in staffing levels and support services make it hard for social workers to do what they know to be best, such tough realities only make the present COVID-19 achievements of resilient social workers all the more extraordinary.
Our social work members continue to be supported by the skilled advice and representation team and I worry about social workers who do not have this skilled protection. Never before have social workers really needed the support of a union and a professional association who are dedicated and knowledgeable about social work.
John McGowan, General Secretary, Social Workers Union. John is also a Programme Tutor, on the social work degree, at the Open University in Scotland. He is an active and registered social worker.