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1st Edition April 9th, 2020 Robin Sen

Politics, social work and Covid-19

March 2020 the month the music died or the month it revived?

The saying goes a week is a long time in politics. These weeks have felt long in all areas of life, but especially in politics. This article focuses on two things related to it: what we should expect of our governance under Covid-19; and the Government’s financial rescue package. 

At the start of March the Prime Minster effectively announced a ‘mitigation’ strategy for Covid-19: ‘For the vast majority of the people of this country we should be going about our business as usual,’ he declared. This laissez-faire approach contrasted with the social distancing and suppression measures most other countries had by then begun to take. On March 11th, David Halpern, brought into Government from the Behavioural Insights Team to help with its messaging over Covid-19 was the first to talk publicly about ‘cocooning’ ‘at-risk groups’, in a BBC interview, as part of a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. That this was the Government’s official strategy was reinforced in a Radio 4 interview with Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, on Friday March 13th. In line with this strategy, on March 12th, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty announced that Covid testing would from then on solely be undertaken on those with the most severe symptoms, meaning we lost the capacity to systematically track the spread of the virus

Then the policy changed. The Health Secretary, who during the election campaign had tried to persuade us that the Tory party’s pledge to have 50,000 ‘new’ nurses in the NHS was valid despite that number including 19,000 existing nurses, wrote an article in a paywalled Sunday newspaper on March 15th, stating that herd immunity was not the Government’s policy aim. Neither he, nor anyone else in the Government, has since acknowledged that it ever had been. A series of increasingly restrictive social distancing measures followed, sometimes, as in the case of school closures, with the Government announcing measures at the end of a week, which it has said were not necessary at its start. In respect of testing, the Government also U-turned: by April 1st, Boris Johnson announced in a video to the nation that he had been saying ‘for weeks and weeks’ that ‘testing is how we will unlock the Coronavirus puzzle’. I can find no record of him having said so in mid-March when the Government’s Chief Medical Officer announced the Government would be abandoning mass testing. 

It is easy to pick holes in the Government’s responses. So let’s acknowledge that this is decision-making under extreme pressure, in a fast-moving situation. There are also extremely hard balances to be struck between the severe restrictions on civil liberty for all, substantial damage to the economic livelihoods of most and the likelihood of death for a notable minority: currently the balance has swung heavily in favour of a suppression policy in most countries to limit infections and deaths, meaning draconian restrictions on normal freedoms. However, questions will re-emerge about this balance the longer the lockdown continue and if there is a second, or more, periods of lockdown. In the UK annually there are 17,000 flu deaths  yet there is no consideration given to implementing any social distancing measure in the Winter period, when they occur. Flu is far less contagious, and kills far fewer people than Covid-19 would, if left to a herd immunity strategy. Nonetheless, the Covid crisis illustrates that we were making some trade off over flu all along, although most of us were unaware of it. 

What we should expect of our political leaders under Covid has some broad congruence with what I think we routinely expect of good frontline social workers and social work managers: they cannot be reasonably expected to make all the right calls in complex, fast-changing, situations. Who could? But we should expect that they use they use their judgement wisely to make decisions that are both defensible and defended in the contexts they face: they should be able and willing to articulate not only their final decisions, but their underlying rationales, to those affected by them; they should transparently share the key data underpinning their judgements; and, where decisions later change, they should be prepared to openly acknowledge that they have, explaining why conclusions have changed. Based on these criteria, the Government has fallen notably short.

We should also be prepared to judge the leadership of our profession by similar criteria. Again, no-one should expect that they have all the solutions to the myriad tricky policy and practice issues this crisis has thrown up, or that all the profession and those it serves will agree with all they do. But we can expect that in this period those in leadership roles use their judgement to remain well positioned to respond to unfolding events relating to social work; articulate the basis of Government positions on social work to the profession, where they are close to Government decision-making processes; and, crucially, use the platform they have to publicly highlight back to Government gaps and issues within current policies impacting on social work practice under Covid. There are some promising signs in this last respect – BASW’s recent open letter to the Government regarding gaps in infection prevention and PPE advice for social workers is a good example of what we might expect. But, there is also more work needing to be done.

The second aspect of the Covid crisis I discuss here is the Government’s financial rescue package. In one of Jeremy Corbyn’s last interviews as Labour leader he argued that the Government’s huge £330bn Covid rescue package proved he was ‘right’. Certainly, the package shows that huge state investment, of the type Corbyn argued for, is economically possible when there is political will. When the Tories first got back in to power in coalition in 2010 they, and the Liberal Democrats, told us that national debt – standing at a little over 60% of GDP – had to be reduced or we would become, like Greece, a bankrupt nation needing to beg for a state bailout. This provided the justification for the unprecedented public spending cuts that that Government inflicted, inevitably hitting those most in need the hardest: family centres, youth work, working age welfare benefits were all notable casualties.  Yet, when net debt now stands far higher – at over 80% of GDP and rising –  the Government has been able to find the capacity to make such significant state investment. The rescue package’s very existence surely buries for good the Tory-Lib Dem claim that there was an economic need for the savage public spending cuts which they inflicted on the country in the name of austerity; the need was only ever ideological.

Be that as it may, the majority of the electorate did not trust Jeremy Corbyn to direct significant levels of state investment in pre-Covid times, for a variety of reasons. Yet, opinion polls do suggest a majority current trust a Tory Government making similar levels of state investment in response to Covid. Has, then, the Covid crisis led to a burgeoning social solidarity where the majority accept the need for greater state investment to meet public need? There are some reasons for hope  – it seems evident that public support for the NHS and its staff during the Covid crisis will make it very hard for the current Government not to invest more heavily in it than its recent predecessors. There also seems basis to believe that the crisis will reinforce the value of health care systems as fully public services. 

There are also several lingering concerns. It is possible that majority support for the Covid rescue package relates to many of the public seeing ‘people like them’ being supported by it, even if we are starting to see the emergence of some ‘blame and shame’ narratives. In contrast, the harshest austerity cuts fell on marginalised groups who could easily be side-lined or responsiblised for their situations. It is estimated Covid deaths in the UK could, at the lower end, be kept to 20,000. This is very significant but less than a sixth of the estimated 130,000 preventable deaths in the UK that austerity cuts caused while we, as a society, watched on. Within the responses to Covid there is emerging evidence that the rights of marginalised groups are being compromised the most – this includes reports that groups of older people and those with learning disabilities have been subject to Do Not Resuscitate orders without proper consultation; analysis showing how the Coronavirus Act has diminished the rights of several groups of people to state social work support; and, the sudden re-emergence of traditional conceptions of family in a way that glosses over the lived complexities for many households under Covid whose lives do not fit the neat idea of what a family household is – amongst them reconstituted families, adults caring for older relatives, older kinship carers caring for children, and parents whose children are in the care system. 

March 2020 has already proved a pivotal month in the UK’s recent history. Whether we look back on it as a point of renaissance for social solidarity, or a moment when diminished protections for the marginalised were further entrenched, remains to be seen. It will probably not be clear for some months to come. That, in itself, brings an additional ray of hope – that what will be finally won or lost during this time is still yet collectively ours to determine.

Robin Sen, Lecturer in Social Work, Sheffield.