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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Avery Bowser

A pandemic perspective from Northern Ireland

Is it too early to be trying to learn from this pandemic? Can you learn in real time in a crisis? In the anti-fact, post-truth times we are living in, is such an effort doomed? When this is deemed to be ‘all over’, will any learning be washed away by our yearning to return to the hyper-consumption and solipsism we call ‘society’?

Big questions, writing from a small place with a history it often struggles to contain. Not helped by two sources of trepidation in putting thoughts to paper.

First, there is my own sense of imposter syndrome. Well into my fourth decade of calling this place home, these can only be the views of someone who, like Connor MacLeod, is from ‘lots of different places’ (1) – looking in and looking out.

Second, there’s more than a bit of survivor guilt. I’m writing from a position of privilege. I have a job. Though it has been demanding and intensely strange, I have been able to work from home. It’s not the way I would want to work for the rest of my career but it has been possible. No one in my close circle has been ill or died. I have not been in a setting where others have suffered or died.

So yes, it probably is too early to say anything definitive, but it is still possible to observe and theorise, to discuss with others and see if there are shared experiences and perspectives. This might suggest the things we should look at in more detail, or indicate areas for assessing need. And just maybe, if we can talk with each other rather than shout, we might have emerging knowledge and precious facts.

So I will offer you some thoughts from my own practice world; a perspective on the systems we work in; and returning to the big stuff, where does this all fit into the greater social and political currents of our time?

From my own practice space in an isolated corner of western Europe, I have been so proud of my profession. Across all walks of social work there has been a real can do, problem solving response to the pandemic. In the midst of uncertainties about PPE social workers have been out there demonstrating sustained concern for the people they serve. Technology has clearly worked much better than anticipated. In Action for Children we were very fortunate that our technology strategy had got us to a point where almost all practitioners, managers and administrators were able to move from the office to home working immediately. Lots of things have worked, and COVID-19 has accelerated developments that probably would have come in due course, particularly with social media and video conferencing, both in the workplace and in delivering services. It has certainly exploded some orthodoxies around what can and can’t be done from home. This is particularly important for people with disabilities and their access to work. That said no one should gloss over the pressure of trying to work from home with young children in the house!

The social work response to the crisis reminded me of the practice described in the workshops that supported the publication of Voices of Social Work Through the Troubles (2).  Many practitioners described a freedom to practice creatively within communities that was far from risk averse. Government guidance has often been behind where the public were, and certainly did not (perhaps could not) provide enough detail for the decisions social workers, and their managers, had to make in real time.

We also took good things into the crisis which remained good and served us well. I am very privileged to Co-Chair the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership(3). In the spirit of the times our May workshop on community development changed into a webinar ‘Social Work and Coronavirus – Staying Connected in Crisis’. Again, the pandemic accelerated a process that was leading to not only the introduction of technology to our repertoire, but also the partnership working with other agencies – BASW, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, Action for Children, CLARE and the Social Care Council in NI. However, the thing that made it happen was the co-production that had driven our work over the last three years. By that I mean social workers and service users working together – sharing power in choices, decisions, design, delivery and evaluation. In a time when we rightly could not lean on the Trust as usual, the capacity of the asset that had been created delivered something that was needed. In answer to one of my earlier questions, the attendance and engagement with the workshop showed that two months into lockdown there was an appetite to learn from each other.

Another good thing we took into the crisis could be seen in our fostering service. Once again it points to core social work practice and values.  In the lead up to lockdown and in the early weeks it was easy to see how fear was driving everyone – fear of the virus; of its impact. Across fostering services there were worries that a lot of fragile placements would collapse.  For us and many others this largely did not happen (although a different pattern may be starting to emerge as we exit lockdown). But in amongst all the good fostering practice that has sustained placements, something has kept shining through for me, and that is trust. Trusting each other as a team, and not just the social workers. The trust between the service and its foster carers. And the trust that is built up between foster carers and children. It doesn’t happen by accident – it happens through strong, consistent relational practice.

So, what about the system we work in? For me, the pandemic has shown that we still remember what’s important in social work and how you make the good stuff happen. There were no evidence-based programmes for this crisis. What we did have and have used is the commons of our collective wisdom. Relationships matter – with each other, with the people we serve.

The public health fiasco in the UK that has arisen from the Westminster government’s handling of this crisis has highlighted once again the foolishness of bypassing the local and eviscerating community services. Getting it right from here means a reversal of the last ten years of austerity and outsourcing. If the Westminster government will still not find reverse, then the governments in the nations need to use their powers and budgets to revitalise local community services. This will mean fundamental change to the current commissioning/procurement culture – the third sector needs to be seen as a partner rather than a supplier.

A quick word of warning on commissioning and the success of technology. There is concern that some commissioners may think that video conferencing can replace face to face human contact. That needs to be challenged. One of the reasons a lot of social work has been effective via technological solutions is because the relationships to support it as medium were already in place. Largely, we have been finding additional tools to work with rather than total replacements.  Resist a vision of remote control, call centre social work.

There are some big topics from fostering that will need a lot of discussion. Many children have been less stressed and more settled with less family time and less time in school. We need to stand back and have a non-shouty conversation about what actually works better for some of our children before simply returning to business as usual.

I have talked a lot about technology. Clearly, in the workplace the pandemic has shown the benefit of proper investment in digital working. Sorting out how partner agencies can share information without constant quarantine and use stable video conference platforms is essential. But the big ticket item is broadband capacity – for business and everyone. Spending billions on HS2, rather than providing South Korean levels of broadband to every home and workplace in the UK, does seem rather odd. COVID-19 has shown us the social and health gradient in pin sharp 4K detail. Seeing broadband as a public utility would not only be about economic recovery and fairness, it would be transformative for education and access for people with disabilities.

COVID-19 has been a social and political change accelerant. And looking out and looking in from here, it’s pretty clear that the UK is changing. Just as the virus shone a light on the social and health gradient, so it has highlighted the fractures in the UK political settlement. The four nations tried to stick together at the start but that has broken down. Where will it lead? Brexit is still coming and business as usual has left the station. What does that mean for social work? While we understand the power of the local, we need to stay connected across regional and state boundaries as an internationalist profession. Our solutions will be person centred and community embedded, but this has been a pandemic which, more than ever, shows the need for relational, ethical and social justice driven social work in a world where inequality and injustice are still common currency.

Avery Bowser is a Children’s Services Manager with Action for Children’s fostering service in Northern Ireland. Avery is also Co-Chair of the Belfast Local Engagement Partnership. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Notes

  1. One for all you Christopher Lambert/Highlander fans out there.
  2. Duffy, J.; Campbell, J.; Tosone, C; (2019) Voices of Social Work Through the Troubles. Belfast; BASW NI and NI Social Care Council.
  3. The Belfast Local Engagement Partnership is part of the Northern Ireland Social Work Strategy. The five partnerships share their boundaries with the five NI Health and Social Care Trusts. The partnership brings together social workers and services users to promote and improve social work.