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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Sweta Rajan-Rankin

Is Covid-19 an “equal opportunity disease”?

Why BAME communities are among the hardest hit 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought an interconnectedness amongst peoples across the globe. When else would China, Iran and South Korea be of such intense interest to understanding how to slow the spread of the virus in the UK? When music playing from balconies in Italy, chime with the sound of #ClapforCarers across the UK, and thalis banging in unison across India. The collective threat posed by the virus have created a shared sense of vulnerability. It would not be surprising if the very commonalities around the frailty of the human condition mean that “we are all in it together”. After all, this is a disease that has claimed as victims, both the wealthy and the poor. If Prince Charles and Boris Johnson can both contract Covid-19, then surely this is an equal opportunity disease? 

There are dangers to falling into the trap of thinking that Covid-19 affects everyone in the same way. As of the 21stApril 2020, there have been 124,743 confirmed cases and 16,509 deaths reported in the UK (Public Health England, 2020). A recent study by Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (INARC) based on a sample of 285 critical care units in England, Wales and Northern Ireland indicates a disproportionate effect of coronavirus on patients from ethnic minority backgrounds. Analysis published in the BMJ suggests that of the 3,883 patients who tested positive for Covid-19, 486 (14%) were Asian and 402 (12%) were Black: nearly double the 14% ethnic minority population in the UK. Even more worrying, the first 10 Covid-related fatality amongst doctors have all been from Black, Asian and Middle-Eastern backgrounds. This has sparked anger in the health and social care community, with the British Medical Association (BMA) asking for an urgent investigation of Covid-related deaths among BAME health workers. As Dr Chaand Nagpaul notes, “We have heard the virus does not discriminate between individuals but there’s no doubt there appears to be a manifest disproportionate severity of infection in BAME people and doctors”. Yasmin Gunaratnam draws attention to this in her article “when doctor’s die”, highlighting the vulnerabilities both minority doctors and patients face in the wave of increasing xenophobia and racist attacks on the front-line. The appalling lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for nurses, doctors, social care workers and social workers; and callous remarks from the Secretary of Health and Social Care Matt Hancock, asking frontline staff not to overuse PPE equipment, signals a consistent trend of lack of care for front-line workers. 

In order to fully understand how and why minority communities are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, we need to analyse the historical legacies of austerity and the stripping of NHS funds on the one hand, and the deepening of social inequalities among BAME groups on the other. These are not separate, but interconnected issues. The volte face evident in the Conservative government sending impassioned pleas to “Save the NHS”, needs to be read alongside the same government’s attempts to dismantle the welfare state and underfund the health and social care sector. It is no wonder that Matt Hancock’s remarks have been met by anger and outrage by front-line staff: he is asking them to treat personal protective equipment as a “precious resource” while completely overlooking the most precious resource we have, our frontline staff themselves.

Similar contradictions are evident in immigration policy. In February 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel’s released a statement denying visas to “low skilled workers” based on a points-based system. Foreign workers account for one-sixth of the 840,000 social care workers in the UK, and many who are low-paid (not low-skilled) would not qualify for visa status. A bare two months later, the same category of “low skilled workers” are being celebrated as “key workers” within the heroic rhetoric of “saving the NHS”. The vital work they do, and have always done has been to protect the most vulnerable. What has not changed is their pay, their material circumstances, their career prospects (the most recent government mandate has been that it is not the right time to consider increasing nurses pay) or the backgrounds they come from which can heighten the level of risk experienced by ethnic minority groups.

Research has shown that ethnic minority social care workers, health workers and nurses are more likely to face abuse during their work, tend to be low-paid and come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Environmental factors such as living in crowded housing spaces, with multi-generational families, as well as having pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension can also increase the  risk of contracting and dying from the coronavirus. Rather than locate these risk factors as individual pre-dispositions to the disease, it is important to recognise, how institutionally structured racism and racial discrimination impacts on health, education and employment outcomes in these communities. As Bècares and Nazroo (2020) note, racism is a root cause of ethnic equalities in Covid-19. The hyper-vigilance of Chinese bodies and increased xenophobia during the pandemic is also testament to this.

In a recent piece, Arundhati Roy described the “pandemic as a portal” in which the effects of coronavirus thus far experienced by the wealthiest nations has brought capitalism to a juddering halt. However, it is also a fallacy to assume this inversion of power has created a bizarre form of equality. BBC journalist Emily Maitlis nailed this point in her observations that the disease was not a great leveller, it just enhances vulnerabilities based on existing social inequalities. 

Social work as a profession has always been alive to the structural nature of social inequalities and how this plays out in struggle in the lives of individuals, families and communities. We must be cautious about being swept away by rhetoric, and hold fast to anti-discriminatory ways of working, for it is in this value-based terrain, that lasting change can happen. There are a number of ways in which we can promote an anti-racist social work during Covid-19.  We need to remember that behind the multi-ethnic solidarity of the social work workforce, there remains a gulf between the anti-racist practice we aspire to, and wider contexts and policies that can be profoundly racially discriminatory. As Mosacha et al (2019) note, anti-racist practice requires us to interrogate racist policies and policy-making. We can do this by demanding accountability from the government in reporting the scale and scope of ethnic minority fatalities and investigating circumstances where disproportionate impacts are felt. We need to be vigilant about individualising discourses around risk among ethnic minority groups, remembering that health inequalities are influenced through social and economic inequalities. We need to recognise that our BAME social work students, practitioners and services users and carers, face stigma and discrimination in everyday life; and this can become heightened under the current crises. Recognising the profoundly unequal ways in which social risk is experienced by ethnic minority groups, and how race and racism shape the wider contexts of social work practice, are key steps in understanding how and why BAME communities are worst hit during the Covid-19 crises.

Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Kent. Her interests are in anti-racist social work interventions, race and racialisation, migration and belonging. 

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Durham MSW Collective

Lessons in Resilience: supporting social work students during the Covid-19 crisis

Introduction   

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has demanded rapid action to save lives.  It has offered a sobering reminder of the deep fault lines of global neoliberalism that has deepened national and international inequalities.  Yet the shock of Covid-19 that has reverberated through the lives of citizens and institutions has created spaces for action that reject the authority of market forces. 

In this brief article we focus on the challenges faced by social work students balancing personal and professional concerns, and by universities in exercising their duty of care to social work students.  As UK universities moved rapidly to implement social distancing, adopting practices of online engagement with students, we faced the challenge of supporting social work students in placements and their practice educators.   Conscious that some institutions have withdrawn students from practice placements, we offer an account of how University of Durham MSW students have been enabled to exercise informed choices about how they can continue their journey towards qualification.  We draw on our learning to identify opportunities for strengthening understanding of the impact of policy responses to Covid-19 on social work service users, practitioners and students. In particular we show the potential for developing creative approaches to the generation of valid evidence demanded by the Professional Capabilities Framework that shapes social work qualification in the UK.  

Responding

In the final days of industrial action in UK universities over pensions, pay and employment inequalities, the sudden need to review arrangements for social work students in practice placements required clear thinking, rapid action and a coordinated response.   Proposals offering flexibility depending on placement and student circumstances, allowing for emerging guidance from the regulatory body Social Work England, were developed and discussed with placement providers and students.  Rapid university approval allowed the new arrangements to be communicated to students, placement providers and practice educators within three days.  The involvement of all parties in developing these flexible arrangements has been vital in gaining cooperation and identifying a clear way forward.   A final year student commented:  ‘the University acted very swiftly to the changing Covid-19 situation.  This gave me the time to prepare for what was coming’. 

Individual contact between students, tutors and practice educators, regular communication of updates to students from national and international social work bodies, sharing of relevant and inspiring accessible resources and regular online meetings of staff and students in year groups have all been used to share information and experiences, to pose and respond to questions and queries.  Support for practice educators in training is offered in the same way.  Exemplary support from administrative staff and regular online team meetings with our Head of Department have also been vital in enabling the MSW to survive and thrive.  Recruitment for 2020 intake continues using remote visual technologies, maintaining the involvement of service user and practitioner partners.

Challenges

This account risks painting a straightforward picture of what has been a complex process, with many practical and ethical dilemmas.  Investing the necessary time to identify alternative ways of supporting students, enabling the majority to remain in placement, has risked sending the wrong message to our employers about our commitment to work at a time when we are in dispute over pay and conditions. However, mindful of the values of the social work profession, in these rare circumstances the staff team was unanimous in its decision to support students to avoid interruptions in their progress towards qualification, and to be able to continue supporting service users.  Students, practice educators and staff alike have had to invest time in learning new forms of technology in order to communicate remotely.   The use of online technologies raises fundamental questions, not only about the way in which we relate to one another remotely in a profession that relies on effective communication skills, but also about how we identify and connect with individuals who are ‘digitally excluded’.

‘Within placements/ work settings the disparities between those who have a lot and those who have nothing has given a real insight into the airbrushing that is common in our society.’ (final year student)

For a small number of students, principally those in voluntary agencies, placements have had to pause as the agencies have found themselves unable to sustain service provision remotely, or to sustain their services at all, as limited income streams are further threatened by restrictions on income generation activities.  But there have been opportunities for students to contribute to the adaptation of services, for example enabling the online delivery of mindfulness sessions for parents affected by their involvement in child protection processes and opportunities to take up temporary paid employment, or volunteering roles, as the social work force itself is compromised by self-isolation requirements.  These opportunities have been aligned with prescribed learning outcomes to offer continuity for students. Working from home for parents of young children and those with other caring responsibilities has presented challenges for staff, students and service users alike.  Online support and learning sessions are available to support students, both in rising to the challenges of responding to the shock of Covid-19 and in reflecting on their experiences.    Some final year students have had to adapt dissertation research designs to avoid face to face contact with participants.  Supported by emerging knowledge and debate on conducting fieldwork in a pandemic, this challenge has developed learning about the practical and ethical challenges of empirical research, the need for flexibility and readiness to adopt alternative approaches.  

Further Learning 

While our focus here has been on supporting students to support service users, to complete their placements, and progress towards qualification, we are acutely aware of the impact of distancing measures on service users and carers.  We have encouraged students to reflect critically on local, national and international policy responses and their implications for service users and practitioners alike.  In this way the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis have created opportunities for enhancing learning across the range of professional capabilities,   particularly sharpening attention to values and ethics, diversity and (in) equalities, rights and justice.   The impact of temporary or permanent job losses on family incomes, and the impact of physical and social distancing and isolation measures on children and families, older and disabled adults, present ethical dilemmas, sharpen inequalities and raise questions about human rights.  Isolation measures increase threats to mental health, exacerbate tension in households leading to increased incidents of domestic violence, and add to difficulties in identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect.  Greater reliance on online communication to access advice and support throws ‘digital exclusion’ into sharp focus as those who are unable to engage with the necessary technologies become further disconnected from sources of support.   As students confront the practical challenges and ethical dilemmas thrown up by the covid-19 crisis, prompting reflection on the core aims and functions of social work, we underline the importance of remaining anchored to the principles of human rights and social justice that underpin this global profession.  And we continually highlight opportunities for learning from existing and emerging experiences about the development of practice responses and disaster resilience building across the globe.    

Where do we go from here?

Global perspectives are vital in supporting social work students to gain a broader understanding of the long term consequences of short term responses to crises that threaten the health and well-being of large populations.  Referring to Covid-19, the historian and philosopher Harari reminds us that short term emergency measures can become accepted ways of life, and government responses to crises can serve as large scale social experiments.  Current examples include emergency coronavirus legislation in the UK that set aside elements of current social care and mental health legislation, reducing entitlements to care services and weakening safeguards surrounding involuntary admission and detainment of people with mental health disorders.  Yet the pandemic underlines the importance of communities and society, going beyond the focus on individuals and families.  And the introduction of a wage subsidy has reignited debate over the merits of universal basic income. Harari identifies two sets of choices: i) between states of surveillance and citizen empowerment and ii) between national isolation and global solidarity.  Social work is firmly located in the fields of citizen empowerment and global solidarity and the process of supporting and learning from social work students in developing the necessary resilience to be advocates of empowerment and solidarity must continue. 

Durham MSW Collective

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Gillian MacIntrye and Ailsa Stewart

For some, home is not safe: Considering the experiences of women with learning disabilities affected by gender based violence during Covid-19

As we enter the fourth week of “lockdown” across the UK as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, we only have to speak to friends and family or browse social media to gain a sense of the difficulties and frustrations that many people have with being “stuck at home”.  We are encouraged to try to shift our thinking to appreciate that we are, in fact, safe at home rather than stuck.  While for a good number of people, that is indeed the case, there has been growing recognition that for many people home is not safe. It is becoming clear that rather than fostering a sense of collective solidarity, a sense that “we are all in this together”, this crisis has further highlighted the great inequalities in many post-industrial countries..  The experience of being in lockdown is not equal and  previous inequalities have been further amplified as was so powerfully highlighted by the contributors in our previous edition.  Families living in poverty without access to the most basic amenities, let alone access to a garden or reliable internet connection will have a very different experience to those who do.  In this piece we want to focus our attention on the experiences of a particular group of people who are among the most marginalised in society – women with learning disabilities who experience gender based violence.

There has been growing recognition that women who experience gender based violence are at increased risk of abuse or even death during the lockdown.  The Guardian recently reported that at least sixteen domestic abuse killings in the UK have been identified by campaigners since the lockdown restrictions began, around double the average rate for this time of year. A survey by the UK wide charity SafeLives found that, for survivors living with their abusers during lockdown, 22% rated their safety at less than five out of 10, 54% were worried about finances and 72% were worried about their mental health.    This has prompted the Scottish Government to make £350 million available to Scottish Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis Scotland to ensure the continued delivery of vital support services during the crisis. Annoucing the money, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said:  “we want women and children experiencing domestic abuse in the home to know that although they may feel isolated and vulnerable during these unprecedented times, they are not alone”.  In addition, Police Scotland are promoting their 24 hour abuse helpline and advising people to visit Safer.Scot for further information and advice.  

While all of these measures are commendable, the experiences and voices of people with learning disability have been absent from these discussions.  As researchers working with people with learning disabilities for many years this absence is unsurprising to us.  Our work has shown that people with learning disabilities are among the most excluded, disadvantaged and discriminated against groups in our society.  Their experience of Covid-19 has been no exception to this.  The number of deaths occurring outside of hospitals in care homes and residential units has become a source of national concern, and it is often forgotten that this includes those with learning disabilities and autism, as well as older adults.  Prominent advocates for people with learning disabilities such as Eva Kittay, whose daughter has a learning disability, are campaigning in the hope that those with learning disabilities are not forgotten amidst the Covid crisis; while it is telling that George Julian is campaigning to ensure that the deaths of people with learning disabilities are recorded and properly recognised. 

There is a glimmer of hope that the needs of people with learning disabilities are beginning to be acknowledged during this global pandemic.  The Australian Government has produced a management and operational plan for coronavirus for people with disabilities, with a particular focus on the rights that disabled people have to life, and to the same standard of health care as anyone else.  Professor Chris Hatton, a prominent academic in the learning disability field, has called on the four countries of the UK to develop similar plans for their citizens.  In social care, the Social Care Institute for Excellence has produced a guide on Covod-19 for social workers working with people with learning disabilities with the aim of keeping people with learning disabilities and autism safe and “helping them play their part in getting through this national emergency while at the same time protecting and promoting people’s rights wherever possible”.   

So what are the experiences of women with learning disabilities who are living with the threat of gender based violence during this global pandemic?  From the small amount of research that has been carried out, we know that women with learning disabilities are more than twice as likely as their non-disabled counterparts to experience gender-based violence and that often traditional support services do not feel well equipped to support the particular needs of this group of women.  In recognition of this gap in service provision Central Advocacy Partners an advocacy organisation in Central Scotland set up a specialist advocacy project known as the “Survivors’ project” to support women who are currently or who have historically experienced gender based violence.  We are half way through a three year evaluation of the project and have been working with staff, referrers and service users to understand their experiences of, and responses to, gender based violence.  We have been moved by the powerful accounts of the women who have so honestly shared their accounts with us.  We have been struck by the pervasive nature of the abuse experienced by these women, for some, since childhood.  Their lives are complex and as well as abuse they have had to contend with poverty, poor housing, isolation, bullying and discrimination within their local communities. For many, this complexity has included the loss of their children (temporarily or permanently) as a result of child protection concerns.  The organisation in question has worked with the women on an intensive and often long-term basis to develop their understanding of gender based violence in order that they can better protect themselves and keep themselves safe.  This not only requires educating the women on gender based violence and its effects but involves providing support around all aspects of the women’s lives.  Often this has required a complex navigation of a wide range of services building relationships with others as part of this process.  

Despite the lockdown we are attempting to continue with our evaluation.  This has meant carrying out our interviews by phone. For the most part this has worked well, although it can never replace the quality of face-to-face interviews.  What has struck us most from these interviews is the sense of loss that covid-19 has brought to the lives of these women.  What has become clear is that the Survivors Project has been building a kind of scaffolding around the women to give them the support they need to tackle the complex challenges that they face.  While the advocacy workers from the project continue to work hard and check in with the women regularly, offering much needed support, there is a sense that all other work has been paused.  The referral to a learning disability social worker?  On hold because of the virus.  The appointment with the clinical psychologist?  On hold because of the virus.  For those women in the midst of child protection proceedings the situation is even more complicated.  Children’s panel meetings (a central part of the Sottish child welfare system) might go ahead but it is far from clear how mothers with learning disabilities might meaningfully participate.  Concerns have also been raised that facilitating contact via social media might lead to women being traced by abusive ex-partners.  The women have reported concerns over maintaining contact with their children and some had worries about their children not being returned to them after visiting their other parent during the lockdown. Others have expressed concerns about their lack of access to the technology needed to facilitate video calling and worry that their lack of experience in this area might be held against them in any assessment of their parenting.  Staff in the project have expressed concerns that an ongoing lack of face to face contact between mothers and their children will have a significant and detrimental impact on the women’s mental health.

There are no easy solutions to the difficulties raised here..  The complexities and risks involved for people with learning disabilities and their families can feel overwhelming.  We hope that by raising these issues and encouraging others to discuss them we might contribute in some small way to ensuring the voices of people with learning disabilities and survivors of gender based violence in particular edge their way onto the agenda as we prepare for a new way of life under covid-19.   

Gillian MacIntyre and Ailsa Stewart

Gillian MacIntyre is a senior lecturer in Social Work in the School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde.

Ailsa Stewart is an independent research consultant based in Glasgow. 

For more information about Central Advocacy Partners’ Survivors’ Project please contact Angela Reid or visit their website.  

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 John McGowan

Recognition for Social Work is especially meaningful during the COVID-19 pandemic

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. 

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 John Radoux

Are children in care about to slip out of view again?

I have a small amount of sympathy for the government.  I can understand why they were slow on the uptake – it is hard to change direction when you have grand plans.  Of course, I did not agree with many of the plans the Conservative government had, but that’s not the point – would the Labour Party have been any quicker to accept the new C- 19 reality and the sudden, near irrelevance of their manifesto?  I doubt it.  I am sure this is more the cause of the too gradual acceptance of the havoc C- 19 would wreak and early inaction of government, and some other organisations, than any malign intent. 

Certainly, it took me quite a long time to accept reality, to stop making dismissive jokes and to consider both the impact on my own life and the very troubling effects it will have on children’s social care.  Although, I was about a week ahead of many of my therapy and children’s home colleagues – giving me a few days of feeling like the unhinged panicky one.  You see, I had grand ideas too. 

I had hoped, some would say naively, that this year would see the start of a meaningful review into the care system for children in England.  I believed, perhaps vaingloriously, that I had, along with many others, played a small part in creating enough pressure on the government that they were about to announce something considerably more comprehensive than they intended when they included a rather vague line: ‘we will review the care system for children’, in their general election manifesto.  Crucially, I think we had won the argument for considerable lived-experience involvement. 

All I really did was write a letter, and ask people on Twitter to sign it.  Fortunately – with the help of a few others who shared and promoted the letter – 632 people with personal and/or professional experience of children’s social care signed it and off it went to the Secretary of State.  I am not a campaigner, or at least I wasn’t, I am a residential child care worker, child therapist and occasional writer.  I learned as I went a long about dealing with the media, the priorities of charities and, to an extent, the machinations of government departments. 

From the start I made it clear that every signature was equal and I meant it – they were not ordered on the final letter in any hierarchy of perceived importance.  However, I have a guilty confession to make – I did find the professional status of some of the signatories narcissistically gratifying.  Indeed, when a Knight of the Realm signed, I noticed my internal excitement and immediately berated myself for being a terrible socialist. 

As recently as early March, I was still accepting invitations to meetings and events related to the proposed care review in England.  In the back of my mind I must have known they were not going to happen, but I denied reality nevertheless – I wrote dates in my diary, thought about what I would say, wondered if it would be acceptable to wear jeans and t-shirt or if I would have to do some ironing.  

A few days ago, a friend who helps me with my websites asked me what I wanted to do with the icrletter.co.uk site I had set up to help collect signatures.  “Take it down”, I said. “It’s all on the backburner now”.  I experienced almost no emotion as I said this.  It is only now, as I type, that I have become a little tearful.  I very much doubt the review would have been all that many of us wanted, but I think it might have been the best we were going to get from the current administration, and it could have led to recommendations and reforms which would have made a material difference to the lives and life chances of children in care.  

When the time is right, I will make my presence felt again – I will metaphorically wave letters in people’s faces, I will point to answers given in Parliament, I will do what I can to hold the government’s feet to the fire of its previous commitments. And I will try to rally people.  But, I am not optimistic, I think we are again many years away from, to paraphrase part of the letter so many people signed, radically reimaging and transforming the social care infrastructure in a way that will improve significantly the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

I know that when the Covid- 19 dust settles, the government, local authorities and other public bodies, will be subject to all kinds of demands on time and resources.  I appreciate too that this will involve a great deal of special pleading – everyone insisting that their concern, their cause, must be given priority.  How far down the list will children in care be?  If experience is anything to go by, we can presume it will be very low down.  

A couple of months or so ago, some children’s social care campaigner types were due to appear on the Victoria Derbyshire show to discuss issues around the use of unregulated provision for children in care and care leavers.  The item got dropped at the last minute, because of news that the High Court had put a stop to Heathrow expansion.  Fair enough, you might think, but they still found time for an item on how easy it is to be a vegetarian.  I cannot know how this editorial decision was made, but it is reasonable to assume they considered what would be of most interest to the viewers. 

I relay this story to illustrate something which is easy to forget –  the government, of course, has ultimate responsibility for children in care and, if they chose, they could make radical improvements and many people are learning now, perhaps for the first time, about the importance of the state and how quickly and powerfully it can act if it needs to.  But know this: children in care have only been low down the list of numerous governments ‘priorities, because they are low down the list for the rest of society.  Indeed, usually completely forgotten. 

 John Radoux, residential child care worker.

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Leigh Zywek, Elliot Davis and Richard Devine

Child protection practice in an evolving era

Introduction –  an evolving context

Covid-19 constitutes a global pandemic of unprecedented proportion. The reverberations of such substantial disruption caused by the virus will be felt for years to come. A tremendous amount of humility is required in formulating the consequences and possibilities that may emerge out of this crisis. Perhaps, even if undertaken sensitively, it could be argued that it is premature to be deliberating over the implications of this for children’s social care. In response to this concern we draw upon Nora Bateson, who in her eclectic book Small Arcs of Larger Circles(2016: 41) writes:  

‘Loose and strict, chaos and order, knowledge lies in the paradox of these polarities, and the paradox should not be solved. The knowing is only possible in the aesthetic of uncertainty which will inform not just only our findings, but the process of the searching. No cut pieces, no quick solutions – complexity demands a more engaged enquiry to the patterns that connect’ 

The chaos imposed upon our current ordered systems arguably represents a dramatic shift from opposite polarities; the uncertainty caused by Covid-19 provides us with, at the very least, an opportunity to consider new ways of understanding. We have witnessed changes on a systemic level that previously appeared unfeasible; this provides an extraordinary window into unimagined possibilities. The government has been able to galvanize thousands of people to volunteer for the health and social care sector; the welfare system has immediately removed some of the most punitive and degrading elements to accommodate an increase in applications for financial support; homelessness, often presented by those in power as an intractable problem, has been addressed at an expediency never seen before; we’ve even witnessed weekly national rounds of applause for workers in our beloved NHS. 

A response to Covid-19

In our own organization, at Bath and North East Somerset Council children’s social care, we have undergone radical and systematic organizational change within a fortnight, as we adapt our services to concentrate on helping those who need help and protecting those who absolutely need protecting. The arrival of COVID-19 has undoubtedly upended almost all our previous ways of working with families. We have created new systems almost from scratch, albeit with the benefit of a workforce that has adapted phenomenally quickly, and responded with enthusiasm, energy and care. 

The challenges inherent in this are significant, but the opportunities for new dynamics and ways of doing things remain and the shift in the balance of power and the use of ‘authority’ needs to continue to inform the way in which support is provided. One of the crucial issues that will need to remain at the fore of our minds at this point is how we maintain the social work value-base, where the ‘care vs control‘ debate inherent in statutory practice has never been clearer. We have a virus that is entirely indiscriminate in who it infects, but the choices as to how we respond to this are more important than ever. There are many live debates to be had about whose work society deems essential, how we structure our services so those most vulnerable can get medicine and food, whether social work services put pressure on families to send their children in to school alongside the children of ‘keyworkers’ because ‘we‘ determine the children are ‘safer’ there, or the medical ethical decisions as to who might be front of the queue to receive life-saving interventions, e.g. consider the ‘Do Not Resuscitate‘ forms that some older, disabled, marginalized groups are being encouraged to complete as society’s prejudices about whose life is most worthy leak through, and of course how the use of language informs and shapes these discussions. 

However, in the midst of these ethical complexities new forms of relating emerge.  Recently, a father whose children have been removed into care, sent a note to the child’s social worker, which began ‘it might be strange coming from me but…‘ and then went on to express his gratitude to the worker and their team, saying that, at a time when everyone is showing their thanks to the NHS and emergency services, he wanted to thank them for all the work they do. He proceeded to say ‘your sector gets a bad rap’, and that although he was the last person they would expect to hear it from, he wanted to pass a message  to thank every team for their hard work and dedication ‘in this difficult time, as you all deserve the thanks and appreciation you‘re seldom shown’. As an example of a potential shift in relationship and power dynamics, this is powerful. As a way to show our shared humanity, a virus that has the potential to attack all,  regardless of class, background, wealth or employment role, strips away our differences and exposed our commonality. With that said, it is becoming more apparent that responses to the virus leave some groups considerably more exposed to risk and there are the multiple challenges with the intersectionality of disability, poverty, trauma, race, homelessness etc. For instance, debates that continue over who is getting tested expose the responses that might be seen to discriminate, as does the make-up of those who are forced to continue to work on the front-line beyond NHS staff, such as cleaners, supermarket workers and those in insecure employment, minimum wage jobs, including a disproportionate number of BAME workers. Nevertheless, the advantages of different paradigms of connection for future collaboration and development, are there for us if we choose to see them, strengthening some of the approaches we and others have been trying to build before now, whilst exploring with care which of our old ways of working should change. 

Building bridges

Covid-19 has demonstrated that successful, collaborative and collective action requires a redistribution of power, greater access to resources to those who need it and leadership. We see what is possible and perhaps we can see with greater clarity aspects of our way of working that more readily resonates with these ideas. 

An example, that has been inspired by the work of Featherstone and her colleagues in Protecting children: A social model (2018), David Tobis’ From Pariah to Partners (2013), Annie from Surviving Safeguarding, Re-Frame and our colleagues (/friends) from Camden, is ‘parental advocacy’. The individuals we are forming alliances with are parents who have had experience of social care involvement, either as a child or as a parent. They decided to name the group ‘Building Bridges’. We think their self-generated title tells you a great deal about their integrity and intention. As pointed out by Crittenden (2016: 152), ‘being a bridge means linking two realities by having one foot on each side of what seems like a chasm of difference’. At a recent service-wide conference, we held at Bath and North East Somerset Council, the Building Bridges members stood up in a room full of social workers and family support workers. They articulated their desire to form a different type of relationship than that which many of them had experienced themselves and they put forward their intention to re-present the meaning of children’s services so families may be more inclined to ask for help; ultimately their ambition is to figuratively and literally ‘build bridges’.

If we are to disentangle ourselves and services from the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative that is pervasive within our systems, then we need greater democracy. Our Building Bridges group were telling us what Covid-19 has unambiguously illustrated in recent weeks; we are all in this together! Not only is parental advocacy an ethical and moral endeavour, but it has potential to yield ‘transformative approaches that function at the levels of practice, service design and policy’ (Featherstone et al, 2018: 163).  

Conclusion

Much of the recent change highlights the flexibility within systems when demand necessitates such change and starkly illustrates the relationally interconnectedness of our world. It also highlights that at any point, any one of us could need support from wider society (the state), if the circumstances radically altered our position in life, as Covid-19 has done for many people. We are all vulnerable under certain conditions. Covid-19 represents for many people what other life experiences represent for others; that is, a force outside of individual control that imposes a set of restrictive and debilitating conditions on their ability to be productive, economically, relationally and socially, in the world.

Leadership will be essential during this period. However, we don’t think leadership in the conventional sense is required, rather the type of leadership proposed by Bateson (2016: 87), ‘Leadership is produced collectively in the community, not the individual…meeting unknown circumstances requires rapid and spontaneous learning. In the case of today’s leadership needs, that learning is mutual’. Bateson suggests ‘Mutual learning is only possible when all participants are willing to be wrong…willing to learn, explore new ideas, go off the map, out of the known, and together grope in the shadowy corners of new ideas, new plans, new territories’ (2016: 84). What the possibilities are going forward, and what the potential impact of COVID-19 longer term on our society and structures will be, no one yet knows for sure, but if we can build alliances, collaborate and maintain our value base in a world where we are having to mobilize and react at extraordinary speed in incredible fashions, there are great opportunities. 

Leigh Zywek, Service Leader for Safeguarding, Elliot Davis, Principal Social Worker and Richard Devine, Social Worker

Reference

Crittenden, P.M. (2016) Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation and Treatment, (2nd ed.) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Michael Clarke

The future?

Michael Clarke, care leaver and activist, shares his vision

In the first of three related films, which will be posted in successive editions of this magazine, Michael thinks about the future. He has bought a tent and is a planning a journey somewhere different – an escape – when the lockdown restrictions governing his options lift. Listening to him brings with it a mix of feeling and thinking including an optimistic imagining of a future in which voices are heard, people have some control over their direction, and the experiences they have on their journey are regulated by the strength of the community around them. Watch the first film below:

Portable Studio 

This film is one of three films which are excerpts from a video conversation during lockdown with Michael Clarke, who is a care leaver and activist living in London. It is part of a collaboration between Michael, Tim Fisher a social worker and Trevor Appleson an artist. It is a continuation of Trevor’s work Portable Studio.

Portable Studio started life as an archive document of contemporary British youth culture, made in collaboration with a selection of the young people Appleson met and photographed on the streets of Birmingham for a commission at The Midlands Arts Center in 2015.

Inspired by the way identities are curated online, Portable Studio explores youth identity and experience in an attempt to preserve evidence of a socio-digital landscape that would otherwise pass without physical record.

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Paula Beesley

Covid-19: the impact on social work placements

In early 2020, the Covid-19 virus spread through the world having an unprecedented global, national and local impact. Whilst many people have lost their jobs or been furloughed whilst the pandemic was contained, social workers were seen as keyworkers, a category attributed by Public Health England to staff considered critical to remain working. However, the short-term future of social work placements was unclear, as social work students were not seen as keyworkers. The new social work regulatory body, Social Work England, provided a directive that placements could be continued, shortened, suspended or replaced, and left the decisions of how to respond to their own placement needs to individual social work education providers. This created a breadth of responses, but the common denominator was that social work students had to be able to meet the End of Last Placement Professional Capability Framework (PCF) domains by the time of qualification. When decision making about the future of social work placement, social work education providers had to balance a range of issues:

Placement provision

As the Covid-19 virus’ impact increased, the ability of first placement social care placement providers to continue their service provision declined. This inevitably impacted on their ability to sustain placement provision, and a number of students’ placements were suspended. 

Similarly, practice educators in first and final statutory social work placement provider settings were impacted by the Covid-19 virus, as they began to self-isolate and then remote work. Practice educators had to acclimatise to their own new ways of remote working and undertaking social distanced interventions, meaning that supporting social work students had to be re-evaluated too.

Placement providers quickly reported that how many days the student was into the placement had a significant impact on their ability to allocate work to students confidently and support them effectively on a remote basis. Where students were only just beyond induction, practice educators’ formative assessments of students’ ability and students’ understanding of placement procedure and practice had been limited. Whilst Wwhere the student was approaching or exceeding the interim point in placement, the students were, in the main, more capable of engaging with remote working effectively.

In addition, further consideration had to be given to students who were subject to an action plan, or where areas for development were raised about their practice. Remote working made supporting such students difficult due to access to sufficient support and inability to observe development.

Duty of care to students

Social work education providers had to consider their duty of care to students, which included both the right to complete their education and the right to be safeguarded from risk of infection, a seemingly contradictory combination. As per government guidelines initially a number of students, or members of their household, showed mild symptoms or had underlying health issues and began to self-isolate, although that was subsequently surpassed by a national policy of social distancing and social isolating. Remote working became the norm for social work staff and provided a solution that enabled students to engage with learning activities whilst self-isolating or social distancing.

There were different emotional responses from students: some students were adamant that they should not be on placement, whilst others were equally adamant that they wanted to be on placement. It was important that students were supported irrespective of their perspective so practical and academic solutions were developed that were both creative and flexible. However, there were other emotional impacts, for example fear for their own and loved ones wellbeing, being away from parents or being a parent in a time of crisis. One student reflected that she was alone in a large private rented student accommodation, as students on non-professional courses had all returned to live with their parents. Each of these had to be supported remotely by tutors.

When reflecting on the impacting of suspending or terminating first placements, consideration had to be given to the potential financial consequences on the students. Students were anxious about the impact of the situation on bursary provision, and reassurance was given. The National Union of Students (NUS) called for the waiving of accommodation fees, including vacated private rented accommodation, which would positively impact students who had private rented student accommodation. However, a suspension and resumption of first placement after social distancing had been lifted would potentially financially impact all students if it were over the summer months. This included having to pay for accommodation or childcare costs when they would otherwise not be on placement; they would be unable to work in the summer, often a time to put money towards the following years costs; and potentially being unable to progress into their final year so having to wait longer to qualify, when students can begin to repay academic costs. 

Academic and professional rigour

Further to the debates considering the ethical dilemma of balancing students’ welfare and progression, were the academic and professional considerations. Within universities decisions, quite rightly, were being made about remote learning, building closures and appropriate assessments that fit a more traditional, non-professional course which failed to take account of placement criteria, and dispensation was given to professional courses to be more flexible.

Nevertheless, academic and professional rigour still had to be applied to students completing placement. Compromises had to be made to enable remote assessment and early successful completion of social work placements, which included increased academic work and more rigorous future learning. 

Whilst first placement students were anxious about progression into the following year if placement were delayed, an additional factor was the local authorities’ perspective in relation to future risk factors around re-scheduling first placements if they were to be suspended. Creative practical teaching solutions were considered to replace a practical placement that encompassed teaching, activities, reflection and application to past experience.

Whilst last placement students were concerned about the ability to progress into qualified practice, local authorities raised their need to keep students remotely supporting vulnerable service users and subsequently gain newly qualified social workers to boost their workforce in a time of staff shortages due to the Covid-19 virus. Creative solutions included shorter placements with additional reflections to demonstrate progression and understanding of areas for development leading to a more robust ASYE. 

Social work placement planning in an uncertain future

Decisions about current social work placement have been made: they have been continued, shortened, suspended or terminated. As the initial crisis passes, social work education providers now turn to the future: what will the next cohort of placements look like? 

This of course will be dependent on the length of social isolation and social distancing enforced by the Covid-19 virus and the Government. Social Work England state that all social work students must demonstrate End of Last Placement PCF domain indicators, but where the current cohort have had compromised first placements, their last placement will require a more robust, more rigorous approach. Only time will tell whether that is viable.

In the longer term, the potential economic crisis may have an impact on demand for social work education placements as social work students may not be able to continue their studies and new cohorts may be reduced, so need for social work placements may reduce. By contrast, social work placement provision may shrink due to the impact of the Covid-19 virus on practice educators’ ability to practice and social care placement providers that we have long relied on may no longer exist. 

What is certain is that the need for qualified social workers remains. As we escape from this chrysalis, we must work together to develop realistic and robust social work placements that enable rigorous assessment to continue to produce a high calibre of professional social workers.

Paula Beesley, Senior Lecturer in Social Work and Academic Practice Lead, Leeds Beckett University

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Raza Griffiths

“We are going to do this together”

In the face of unparalleled restrictions on normal life due to the ongoing threat from Covid-19, the Prime Minister makes a video telling us that “We are going to do this together”.

He and the heir to the throne both catch the virus (though they both make speedy recoveries), and the predominantly right wing media use this to underline a supposed levelling of power and privilege in the face of Covid-19. National unity is also what the Queen appeals to in her special broadcast referencing Dame Vera Lynn’s wartime song We’ll Meet Again, designed to help the people of our Green and Pleasant Land meet the current challenge facing the nation. Let’s repeat the mantra of State and Sovereign: We are going to do this together.

As someone who is from a south Asian Muslim background and gay, I welcome what seems to be a ticket onto the same boat as the mainstream White British population, even if the government’s handling of the current crisis appears to be steering us towards the icebergs. It speaks to my experiences of feeling other, due to having been born fatherless – the product of a failed marriage between parents from antagonistic Muslim sects. This sense of otherness grew exponentially when my mother later married my abusive stepfather, who wasn’t even Muslim at all, and then, later still, when I realised I was gay and came out. And all this took place in the context of a wider society that was deeply racist, homophobic and Islamophobic. 

Despite my desire to belong, however, I am left feeling confused. After all, hasn’t our current Prime Minister been doing his utmost over the years, to caricature minority groups? He has spoken of  Black people as “picaninnies with watermelon smiles”; and Muslim women wearing the veil as walking “letterboxes”; and he has referred to gay men in stereotypical terms as “tank-topped bum boys”, and declined the opportunity to apologise.  

These kinds of sentiments take me back to my ingrained feeling of being an outsider who does not really belong anywhere. Except that this time it is ‘our’ Prime Minister uttering slurs which attack my fragile sense of who I am, rather than a reactionary homophobic imam from my younger days. And this is despite the fact that I do not identify as a religious Muslim in the slightest. Yet I very much feel  targeted by Islamophobic remarks and behaviour. Despite my roots often making life problematic for me, they are nevertheless part of who I am and go beyond a narrow focus on the interpretations of religious texts.

And, whilst I have luckily not been as affected as much as many people I know by austerity – particularly other mental health service users – I am very aware of the impact of the Tories’ divisive policies over the last decade, which have widened socio economic inequalities in the general population and led to a rise in food banks to unprecedented levels while others have made whopping profits. These policies have impacted all racial groups but have hit BME communities as a whole, disproportionately hard. According to Runnymede Trust and Women’s Budget Group, Black and Asian households are facing the biggest drop in living standards, with losses of 19.2% and 20.1% from 2010 to 2017 as a result of tax and benefit changes and lost services. This amounts to real-terms average annual losses of £8,407 and £11,678.

And what of the vans urging illegal migrants to leave that had been launched by his predecessor, Theresa May, when she was Home Secretary? To say nothing of her predecessor, David Cameron, who, in the fallout from the terror attacks on British soil and foreign wars, tore up the idea of multiculturalism, which had been – however problematic, imperfect or absent in its application – sold as a key part of modern Britishness. On paper at least, it had offered a kind of space acknowledging the possibility of inclusion of hybrid British identities. Multiculturalism was, to me, an example of trying to put the sentiment behind the declaration that “We are going to do this together” into practice. Certainly – even with its problems – it was far more compelling to me than the perfunctory appeal to unity now.  The cumulative effect of scrapping it is to bring about a sea change in the social contract, and is something I find deeply unsettling. 

The issues of multiply marginalised racial and sexual identity and socio economic inequality are some of the factors I had written about in a Manifesto, A Call for Social Justice finished in 2018.  For this work, I organised consultations with 200 mental health service users from diverse BME communities, in order to highlight the policy and practice changes needed to reduce racial inequalities and improve our lives and mental wellbeing. Though none of the BME campaigners I knew were holding their breath about government actually making changes, there was a sense that the Racial Disparity Audit (2017) ordered by Theresa May, could at least serve to highlight racial inequalities across many areas of life.

The issues that the Audit focused on had been consistently highlighted across three decades. These included the fact that Black Caribbean pupils are three times more likely to be excluded from school than their White counterparts; and that Black men are a staggering ten times more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder than White men within the mental health system; and that they experience  systematic discrimination within the criminal justice system, from stop and search to sentencing to parole conditions, as highlighted by the Lammy Review  (2017) which was also part of the Audit’s work.  And, coming back to ‘my’ community, I had hoped, that in the fight against radicalisation and terrorism, the government would take a more enlightened and ultimately more effective approach, by working with the over 3 million strong Muslim communities, rather than treating them as a fifth column to be watched over hawkishly through Prevent. 

But, in the current right wing national populist era, such priorities – tenuous even back in 2017 – have been all but forgotten in the effort to placate mainstream White British communities who, right wing politicians and media keep insisting, are being marginalised and threatened in their own country by racial minorities. When BME people are not multiplying biologically to threaten the white majority, our cultures are portrayed as corrupting and blackening society. 

As right-wing historian and political commentator, David Starkey succinctly put it, in his spin on the reasons for the violent inner city riots in 2011, “the whites have become Black” (BBC2, Newsnight, Friday, 12 August 2011). Starkey also demonised south Asian (specifically South Asian Muslim) cultures by saying that the Rochdale child exploitation ring which groomed white girls for sex had values that were “entrenched in the foothills of the Punjab”. The specious reasoning that blaming culture in this way, rather than biology, is not racist, has to be constantly exposed. 

So, coming up to the present day, and faced with a pandemic, politicians and red top newspapers have, until recently, airbrushed the fact that some communities are disproportionately likely to be affected by Covid-19 – as they are with almost any kind of public health issue. What we are seeing, is a socio economic and ethnic postcode lottery of sickness and death. And already, we are seeing that BME communities, which as a whole, experience more socio economic deprivation, and are subject to racism, are having a much higher death toll than the White British mainstream. Co-morbidity, including elevated risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease are higher in people of south Asian and African Caribbean descent but the reasons for this themselves are connected to socio economic deprivation according to some experts

Whilst the government has ordered a review to account for why there are proportionately far higher percentages of BME patients in intensive care units with Covid-19, what is the point of it, if (on the record of past governments over the last 30 years) nothing is done to tackle the socio economic factors underlying these inequalities?   

It is easy at this time, when NHS staff are putting their lives on the line and the death toll mounts, for politicians and right wing media to rush to praise NHS staff as heroes. And of course, social care workers, who are also on the front lines in nursing homes and other establishments, are almost totally ignored, in keeping with short sighted government policy which has run down social care now for over a decade. But maybe, since government decisions seem to be responsive to Twitter outcries, social care will now be included, albeit in weak and unconvincing ways?

But what the right wing media noticeably neglects to mention is that 44% of medical NHS staff are from BME backgrounds, despite being more likely to experience bullying especially at higher levels.

What a contrast to the media’s frenzied highlighting of the ethnic or religious identity of BME people (especially Muslims) when they commit any number of crimes, even when those crimes have nothing to do with their ethnic background or religion. 

So, those BME people who make up that 44%, have to be whitewashed as mainstream Us and We, and not seen as problematic Black and brown others, as Them. These whitewashed heroes include the first four doctors to die of the virus, all of them BME and with Muslim names. Let’s open our windows at 8pm to clap and honour them! 

After all, we are going to do this together.

Raza Griffiths 

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2nd Edition April 24th, 2020 Alice Park

Grieving, hopefully

I wasn’t sure when I sat down to write this what I wanted it to be, or where to start. One of the best pieces of advice I was given about writing is come to the introduction at the end, as it will all make sense by then ! Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t lend itself to certainty or sense. It’s been just over a week since I lost one of my best friends Becca, to the virus. The last time I saw her was before lockdown. We argued about which dress would be ‘glam’ enough for her 30th birthday party, and which moisturiser best combats dry skin in NHS facilities. This had become a pressing issue since she had taken up her post with NHS 111 as a nurse. There was nothing to suggest that this would be the last time we would meet. Neither of us were naïve to the reality of COVID-19. We were both worried for those who were vulnerable and knew lots of people would struggle with the social implications. We didn’t really even contemplate how it would affect us. 

I’ve not had much experience of grief, certainly not for a friend. Oddly though, whenever I’ve talked about Becca this past week to my friends, I have always ended up being left with a feeling of fondness and have laughed about experiences we all shared together. I’m not sure if this is right, or how I should feel, but (and this is hopefully the only cliché of the article) Becca brought joy to her family, friends and her patients. Fortunately, it’s that spirit which makes me optimistic, determined and hopeful. So, here are some of my reflections about COVID-19, my friend and the future.

For me, contradictions have defined the COVID-19 crisis from the beginning. Never did I imagine that I would find reassurance at being essentially confined to my own home by the government. Many I spoke to in the first week of lockdown felt the same. There’s nothing like social isolation for keeping in touch and catching up with friends. Certainly, amongst the people I know, there was a heightened sense of collective community responsibility, now that we had been forced apart. Then came the clap for carers. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a shame that it had taken a pandemic to value the people who literally dedicate their lives both to us, and more recently, for us. Nonetheless, I was delighted to hear the shouts of gratitude out of my window as I clapped, thinking of my friends across the caring professions, and how proud I am of them. 

I didn’t know anyone remotely like my friend Becca and I very much doubt I will be lucky enough to again. I’m not sure I will come to terms with losing her for a long time, but what will always remain constant, is that I loved her totally and sincerely. I should probably romanticise the friendship at this point, but the reason I cherished her as much as I did was because our friendship was remarkably unremarkable. We could be at our absolute worst, daft selves around each other. It just worked. We watched Harry Potter, bought too many clothes, drank cocktails and ate lots and lots of Italian food. We particularly enjoyed potato skins (which I think are American) with sweet chilli sauce and aioli. The sauces in particular caused contention as I was quite comfortable to, as Becca would say, ‘double dip’. Being a nurse, this was unquestionably unacceptable to Becca which led me to effectively overcompensate on my first dip. A race would then ensue to see who could eat the most. 

We also talked about work- ground-breaking! Yet it was never mundane. I think anyone who works with or around people will understand the absolute necessity of being able to talk, laugh, cry and vent about their experiences. I will never stop being thankful for her ability throughout my social work training and PhD to take my mind off things when they got difficult. This was usually because my experiences were often negated by some self-inflicted make-up disaster, or hair dye mishap that she had experienced that week, which equally warranted my emotional support. I only hope she felt that I was as much there for her, as she was for me. 

While our friendship was daft, Becca was not. Well, she was … but not always. Whether Becca was working as a Children’s Cancer nurse or for the NHS 111 Service, she was unequivocally dedicated to those she worked with. It has been wonderful, if surreal to see the outpouring of appreciation for her on the news and on the internet. I’m so glad her loving nature and kindness were treasured by so many. Becca also saw the bigger picture and recognised the often difficult circumstances those she worked with were facing. She would talk at length about how social injustice and inequality fuelled her passion to make a difference in her work, though she didn’t use those words. To me, her humanity is what defined her and what I respected most. I feel aggrieved in many ways that she is gone, both as a friend, and as someone who wants society to be a better place, which she undoubtedly would have continued to do. 

Despite this, I also hold a tremendous sense of hope. I am hopeful because there are millions, if not billions of people like Becca all over the world, quite simply doing whatever they can for people, as that is what will get us through this. Paradoxically perhaps, I also hope we don’t forget this difficult time. We can’t forget what is happening. The cautious optimist in me also sees the potential for change. I truly believe that as a society we need to take a step back and rethink how much we value love, community, kindness and compassion, of which we are all capable, if with a bit of encouragement and help. 

Alice Park. The Department of Social Policy and Social Work,  University of York, PhD candidate.

email: amep501@york.ac.uk 

twitter: @Alicemepark