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1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Nick Burke

The failure of social work to respond to Covid-19

The Covid-19 crisis has thrown into sharp relief many facets on neo-liberal society: the abandonment of free market principles when faced with a real crisis; the sudden appearance of magic money trees when faced with a 30% hit to GDP; the weaknesses of “just in time” supply chains that leave supermarket shelves empty. Social work in the UK has similarly been caught short, and the combination of cuts in support services, performance target tyranny and moralist finger wagging at parental deficit that has fuelled the explosion of care proceedings since 2008 has precisely nothing to say in response to Covid-19. 

The early days of this crisis, in mine and many other Local Authorities, have been characterised by attempts to plough on with “business as usual” casework. Arguments over when to suspend visits to Children in Need where, grotesquely, mortal risks of infecting families and staff are balanced against imperatives to continue the monitoring and surveillance of possible future emotional harm. Government policy has exposed foster carers and children to additional risk because the guidance cites attendance at school as a known protective factor. Social workers have continued to staff the offices of investigatory teams and visit families with no Personal Protective Equipment. And services have reduced to what managers see as the core work: home visits to the top RAG-rated (red amber or green – a crude priority rating device) families in the system with no regard to the continued spread of the virus. 

But what else could Local Authorities really offer? In a period dominated by the bully of the Ofsted inspection and the Sisyphian labour of social administration, social workers like me have to struggle daily to carve out opportunities to actually connect, empathise with and assist families we work with. Local Authorities have been weakened and undermined by New Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments convinced that local government is not sufficiently committed to neo-liberal reforms and modernisation, which means that guidance and policy are more and more centralised. In the sector I work in, post adoption support, the centralised and privatised solution of the Adoption Support Fund distorts the field and changes the way that social workers work with families. In the best cases, social workers can find ways to bring birth families and adoptive families together. In the worst cases they become brokers for individualised therapy for a child living in the vacuum of 1950s retro adoption. Social workers in the latter situation, faced with an inability to access the bureaucratic systems they rely on, are at an utter loss as to how to support families in a crisis such as this one. Their managers, schooled in the performance clinic and the audit, are similarly at sea. In a period like this, neo-liberal social work really has little to offer. 

However, there are dynamics which force social workers to redefine their roles faced with Covid-19. The silence of the social work unions is deafening, but I find myself inspired by the UCU strikes which significantly sped up workers’ capacity to shut down the unis and promote social distancing. When the local universities had shut their doors, we were still crammed into hot-desking environments and faced with management inaction. But this also is generating a newfound militancy and we are reading about actions of workers in France and Italy who are shutting down non essential production. I found myself walking across the floor, telling all staff to cancel all their meetings and visits except imminent child protection concerns, at a time when not one instruction had been issued from management. When Boris Johnson called for working from home, many of my colleagues voted with their feet before any official instruction was given, which was at the end of the following day. This also came with hard arguments: that social workers without laptops or smartphones should still be able to work from home, that the performance targets were no longer relevant, that health and safety were more important than GDPR. 

One of the most positive and liberating experiences for me within this crisis has been the revival of a core social work value overlooked by the official social work bodies with their statements and claims to the moral foundations of our work: the value of solidarity. The solidarity found when ringing round parents and young people stuck at home and trying to find a way through, when at the same time I was self isolating for 14 days. And the solidarity in receiving help from the street mutual aid group I set up whilst also encouraging service users to set up and become involved with such groups themselves. Faced with the redundancy of the professionalised value base of neo-liberal social work, I was finding with delight that the much more pertinent, human values forged in supporting fellow citizens were coming to the fore. 

My own personal experiences of social work in the early days of Covid-19 in the UK have been full of anxiety, but also full of positivity. But that is not the only positive that could potentially come out of this crisis. Neoliberalism has form in benefiting from crisis, as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine illustrates, but there is a sense in which this crisis on the scale of the 1930s may be too large for the free marketeers. Their absence in offering solutions has been conspicuous and the possibility that Covid-19 may spell a death knell to neoliberalism both economically and politically is one that might bring hope to social workers and service users everywhere. 

So where is social work amidst the crisis of Covid-19 and what are the prospects for a new radical social work to emerge from this crisis? My view is that, in these early days, social work has not been in the area offices but in the mutual aid groups, in the clap to support the NHS and in the mutual feeling of renewed militancy and solidarity in workplaces everywhere which are left to the mercies of their management in making what will turn out to be life or death health and safety policies. As this crisis unfolds, social workers could well start to articulate new community resilience based approaches to helping others amidst Covid-19, taking up and supporting principles of mutual aid and combating the individualist blame culture from the top. Neo-liberalism will no doubt rear its ugly head again once this crisis is over, but the return to previous forms of state social work is by no means inevitable. The Covid-19 crisis may turn out to be the genesis of another kind of social work, one based on solidarity and mutual aid.

Nick Burke, Social Worker.