2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 David Orr

Social work in pandemic

On 24 March 2020, everything changed. For anyone paying even passing attention to media reports the weekend immediately preceding “lock down”, it was evident that COVID-19 was not simply going to pass Scotland by and save it from the fate of Italy or Spain. With the sun out and parks and beaches thronged in the days prior to Boris Johnson’s decision to impose significant restrictions to our freedoms of movement and assembly, it was only a matter of time before the “herd immunity” strategy was shelved in favour of a strategy more focussed on the maintenance of human life. One day we were all still turning up for work and trying to put in as normal a day’s work as possible, the next we were confined to our homes with no realistic indication as to when things might return to “normal” unless classified as an “essential worker”.

As a Team Leader in Edinburgh’s Young People’s Service (YPS), my day to day work and that of the social workers I supervise is focussed upon engaging with children and young people between the ages of 12 and 18 who are involved in offending behaviour, encouraging them to move towards desistance and to build on their pro-social skills and interests. On the occasions when young people manage to make the transition from offending to desistance, good, relationship-based social work skills deployed by practitioners in our team will more often than not have played some part in oiling the wheels of that desistance journey. It is in face-to-face human interaction between a social worker and a young person that such skills, when used in an authentic and sensitive manner, tend to carry greatest weight. As such, when lock down struck, the first question that sprang to mind was, “How is this actually going to work?” Social work without face-to-face contact in person sounded like a pretty dubious enterprise.

So, now three weeks into this enormous, unplanned social experiment, what have I learned and how has the social work task changed? It should come as little surprise to anyone that one of the books recording significant sales growth since the pandemic outbreak is Naomi Klein’s (2007) seminal work The Shock Doctrine. Written in the days prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, Klein’s searing critique of neo-liberalism compared the methods of The Chicago School (whose adherents were fervent believers in the power of the market, privatisation and de-regulation to propel economic and societal change), with the “shock” methods deployed by those who perpetrate acts of torture (from the application of sadistic humiliation rituals to “waterboarding”). It would be fair to say that the last two weeks in social work have seen something akin to “system, process and practice water-boarding” occur, with the shock of pandemic enforcing change at breakneck speed. However, while the shock has been destabilising, alarming and unsettling at times, I would argue (unlike neo-liberalism and torture) that it may prove to have some upsides in the longer term. It is an age-old social work maxim from crisis intervention theory that in crisis may come opportunity and so it seems that the pandemic may yield some longer-term benefits for both services users and the wider social work profession. How so?

Dragging technology into the 21st century

The aim of the 80-20 campaign launched by the British Association of Social Workers in 2018 was to rebalance the time spent by social workers in direct contact with service users (not enough) with the time spent on the completion of administrative tasks, mainly on computers (too much). If the opposite of “smart” working is “dumb” working, it has felt for a long time in social work that we do far too much of the latter and not enough of the former. While the time spent on administrative tasks relates in part to bureaucracy and the volume of tasks to complete, it also stems from gross inefficiencies stemming from cripplingly slow and outdated IT systems. The last fortnight has shown how analogue systems flounder in a digital age. Who would have thought a corollary of the pandemic would be that we would become familiar with terms such as Virtual Private Network (VPN), “tethering” and cache? We have had little choice. It transpires that sending an entire workforce home and asking them to connect remotely to an already creaking social work information system is a recipe for disaster. We have all fumbled for “workarounds” to avoid the “blue circle of death” and to achieve the dopamine hit of one successfully uploaded case note. If ever the business case for systems to be modernised and updated needed to be made, look no further than the pandemic as a driver for change. Surely there can be no going back after this? Then there is the plethora of alternative means of communication when face-to-face interaction is not possible owing to public health consideration. Anyone who bought a stake in Zoom, Mind of My Own, Skype or Houseparty before this all kicked off will be laughing all the way to the bank. If you had told me in January 2020 that I would attend an Initial Child Protection Case Conference (ICPCC) via Skype for Business with a parent patched into the conference, via an iPhone call merged with another external attendee, I would have assumed you were intoxicated. However, that is exactly what I did in March 2020 and, to my surprise, found the experience remarkably productive and inclusive, a view echoed by the mother of the young people whose circumstances were being reviewed.

The death of hot-desking?

Hot desking. It was all the rage for several years. As ever, we sought to import an idea from the private sector. The days of social workers sitting in fixed seats with pictures of their family (perish the thought), their own favourite Che Guevara mug and the detritus of unfinished casework were to come to an end, we were told. The future is all about being lean and mobile, we were informed. It is all about touch-down desks and rapid transitions, we were led to believe. Never mind the fact that evidence was beginning to mount about the limitations of hot-desking in terms of both worker morale and productivity, as an article in The Financial Times (2019) attested, the small matter of hygiene is another important issue to consider. It turns out that sneezing into telephone receivers, leaving used tissues on desks and fumbling muffin crumbs into a keyboard is not wholly conducive to stemming the spread of a pandemic. Perhaps when the dust settles, we might see a return to a more traditional office environment with roommates, a desk that feels a little more like “home” and fewer outbreaks of colds and flu.

Pausing to evaluate our purpose

I think we all have go-to “lines” that we roll out from time to time because we feel they have resonated in some way with children, young people and their families. On more than a handful of occasions I have highlighted to a doubtful family that we have no desire to be intervening in their lives, that certain circumstances have made such intervention unavoidable and that our aspiration is to be out of their lives as soon as it is safe and defensible to withdraw. Moreover, we have all debated at different times whether our intense involvement with a particular child or young person may be stymieing their independence, promoting “learned helplessness” or (unconsciously) meeting our own needs. The nature of COVID-19 is that it has essentially pulled the shutters down on contact between social workers and service users with the exception of “life and limb” necessity. It is early days, but to date, in the world of youth offending we have not observed a huge increase in urgent calls for assistance. The worry is that risks and needs have become less visible and when we return to the standard fare of home visits and multi-agency meetings, the backlog will overwhelm us. Alternatively, it may just be that we have underestimated the coping abilities and resilience of those we support. While there is a risk of “minimum intervention” being taken to an extreme, there are also risk associated with undue interference and “over-servicing”.

If we are not focussed on tackling poverty, what is the point?

Of the children and young people who have required the greatest support in these initial weeks,, it has been those who are most profoundly affected by social disadvantage and exclusion. One of the more uplifting aspects of the COVID-19 response in Edinburgh has been the focus on prioritising the needs of those living in poverty. Fortunately, we live in a country in which more than lip service is paid to tackling social injustice, safety nets are robust and indeed in a city which has established its own Poverty Commission to accelerate the drive to greater equality. So it is that food parcels and vouchers have been distributed to those struggling to make ends meet, instant payments via Paypoint (sending money in the form of a code to a mobile phone which can then be activated at a range of locations across the city) have been set up where before transactions involved cumbersome paper-based processes and nursery and early years places have been earmarked for children on the Child Protection Register or subject to statutory legal orders. Such an approach seems wholly consistent with a social work value base.

In summary, these are merely initial reflections based primarily on anecdote. These are my own views as opposed to those of the organisation I work for and in another few  weeks my thinking may well have shifted. Fingers crossed we’ll be out by summer! 

David Orr, Social Worker – All views expressed are the author’s own


Klein, N. (2007) The Shock Doctrine, Penguin: London.