Reflections upon the realities of working during COVID-19

I am an Adults Services social worker, working from home with my partner and our children. While she’s a part time teacher, and it’s difficult on the days when we’re both working, we have work, we are managing and we are safe. 
That’s not to say that Covid-19, hasn’t significantly altered working life for me and for others in our council. 
Like others, tragically, we have lost scores of our clients in the community, supported living placements and residential care homes to Covid-19. We’ve also had at least one member of staff working in front line social care. One of my own clients has died, not from Covid-19, but I attended her funeral remotely by video link – unfortunately we couldn’t get flowers to the funeral parlour in time for the funeral itself. 
As a rep in our Union branch, we know all about the tussle our members have had in both in house and private social care provision due Covid-19 period and the measures taken in haste to respond to the Pandemic which have not been planned or gone through consultation. We’ve had some success in getting a closer link with the leadership of the council during this time and we have twice weekly teleconferences in which we’ve been able to influence existing ideas and plans, but key HR/TU meetings have been postponed.
Just as it has been odd working via video and telephone only with clients in social work practice, it’s also been odd as a union rep trying to advocate without being able to read the dynamics in the room so easily. 

There have been some positive, though imperfect, responses to Covid-19. For example, we have a huge team of redeployees within the council working on contacting people who are on the NHS’ extremely vulnerable or shielding list which comes to us from Public Health England in dribs and drabs each day. 

Thoughts about working practices: 
1. Management oversight has changed and is somewhat paranoid – The first change was unease by managers that they could not oversee productivity within the team in the same way. I know social workers in other local authorities have been able to fight this off collectively, but at present we have daily task lists to complete. It was a real drain on the team in the early weeks when we were told continually that we weren’t being productive (as people were still figuring out how to use the recording sheet) and that we could all well be redeployed within the council. I suspect for many social workers during this period, they’ll be familiar with just how much time was spent setting up new processes and procedures, chopping and changing between the strategic priorities for the team, finding new ways of doing work, trying to stay abreast of the tide of new guidance, policy and comments on social work practice and, of course, completing the list itself! The impact on practitioners is that opportunities for greater autonomy in practice are curtailed. 
2. Checking on people who are shielding, proactive but top down work – there has been a top down community social work approach formulated by our council’s leadership. This has involved the formation of a team of redeployees making calls to those most extremely vulnerable to COVID19 (shielding), – this is checking that people who are self-isolating have access to groceries, medication and some kind of social contact, as well as checking on their welfare. This has also  involved social workers regularly working at weekends and evenings. We have been expected to persist until we have contacted the client. 
The problem is this means we regularly run over agreed time slots and it has contributed to a sense of shapelessness of the working day and weekend. When you are at and away from work is now more blurry. Shielding work is in theory voluntary for social workers, but with managerial and peer pressure, that is unclear. Some social workers have been put on lists without their permission. There have even been occasions when we have sent out social workers to do emergency home visits by accident, who were in the ‘at risk’ category for Covid-19 infection themselves. However, it has been interesting working across client groups (children to adults, and those with various impairments and social circumstances) and with the general public in a different way. 
What we’ve not been doing so much, and what I and others in my team have been doing, is pushing for proactive work with those outside of the Shielding list – for instance making checks on a wider section of our clients by telephone. Instead for the most part, we’ve adopted a passive approach in which people come to us. 
3. Access to PPE – this has been the main issue as a Trade Unionist, as a limited supply of PPE was initially available. While our council tells us we have adequate stocks, we have had instances where members in social care provision did not have PPE – for instance when facemasks were not available when working in children’s centre (we had an instance of a child deliberately coughing on staff). In passenger services who help transport young people with complex behavioural needs to college, who are regularly much less than 1m away,  for sometimes did not have this PPE available. Our council has given a 10% wage uplift to local private and in house social care, which is welcome, but it will not be extended out to others like those in passenger services or benefits offices who are coming into close contact with the public all day every day during C19. This  is a developing patchwork and we have to shine a light on the holes. 
4. Risk assessments and rights at work – we had difficulty in getting hold of risk assessments with people questioning why we would need to see these. Under health and safety law, TU reps can request these. We are just getting under the surface of this now. What we have seen is initially poor, just reprints of generic govt guidance on C19 – no attempt to transpose these into the individual workplace or working practices and issues of each team. Our comments have been grumpily accepted so far. 
5.  Whats app and other social media meeting groups – social media chats have had the impact of democratising and providing the opportunity for peer-to-peer discussion outside of the usual management structures. For instance, there is now more frequent contact and opportunities to raise issues and share ideas. Certainly it has affected the usual rigid supervisory and management changes (I know as a supervisor!) into mutual discussion and support with cases. 
There is mutual support offered within groups and they have provided great ways of sharing new documentation such as policy and guidance. 
Equally, these can negatively affect the working day, with work related comment and discussion in the evenings and weekends. 
6. Impact on clients and practice with clients. There has been a big impact on my client group. People with learning disabilities not understanding Covid-19 and social distancing / stay at home guidance, anxiety caused by being housebound and services grinding to a halt.  Lock down initially meant people with learning disabilities and autism were not able to exercise more than once a day – who have an exceptional need to do so (such as to enable a sensory diet or to manage mental health issues). This was not considered for weeks – discrimination against people with such impairments.

Face to face visits have been replaced by video calls for the most part – this is extremely difficult when working with people who have alternative or augmentative communication methods. It is potentially harder to prevent family carers speaking entirely for a client without really seeing or hearing from them. When conducting emergency home visits – we’ve had to turn up in full PPE, especially for safeguarding visits. This has created its own strange dynamic. I had to visit one family for an at risk client – my manager and I were wearing facemasks, plastic aprons, gloves and shoe protectors, I felt as though I looked like a cross between smurf and Darth Vader. It didn’t do much for the power imbalance and setting to the conditions for a sensitive conversation. 
7. What happens next? This is the key question. It is crucial to ensure safety while this carries on and that we don’t return to our usual work places too soon and without proper planning. This has been our biggest ever exercise in home and flexible working, which is potentially an opportunity. Alongside this may sit less personal one to one contact with clients, a loss of the physical team. The risk is that workers will be split apart from working collectively, feeling isolated. With more individualism there is likely to be more division, more virtual management. Perhaps there will be less opportunities or at least new platforms to communicate and advocate with and on behalf of clients.
Early May 2020

Summary of the first Workers’ Experience Meeting: 7-5-20.

You may have noticed that SWAN is using a variety of formats to debate government policies and the role of social work during the current pandemic. Thursday evenings have seen us co-host several huge international webinars with the IFSW, as well as national meetings that address the UK context. SWAN International (SWAN i) has grown exponentially as we connect with workers from South Africa, Hong Kong, Thailand and Greece to name but a few. The calendar is looking busy for months to come, as the appetite for transparency, critical debate and change grows further.

On the 7th May 2020, SWAN hosted a closed meeting for UK social workers that was designed to be a safe space for sharing the reality of what frontline practice is looking like during the COVID pandemic. SWAN recognised that detailed stories of experience are essential for understanding how our government is using the social work profession to deliver its ideological goals during this time of fear and change. We also recognise that practitioners often feel very wary of sharing their worries about what they are being asked to do or criticising their employer. Creating a safe space was crucial. We are very grateful that people trusted our forum to share perspectives, and much came from it.

Our focus was to explore experience, perhaps identify themes, and consider next steps. Immediately we all identified a desire for more meetings in a similar vein. Therefore we are going to be back on the 11th June, details to follow.

Some personal experiences were hard to hear. One worker spoke of entire teams having to reapply for their own jobs, as their employer took advantage of the union stepping back from a walk-out during the pandemic. Another shared that community groups and schools have led the way in easing the impact that COVID has had upon families already managing poverty, with their employer simply trailing in their wake, signposting families.

People talked of the way that families without a laptop or internet access simply can’t get the services they are entitled to. Those using services and reliant upon the welfare state have not been able to stockpile food; those with really complex needs such as drug users are being left behind as services withdraw. Redeployment of social workers may be a common consideration across local authorities but there are worrying stories of wholly inappropriate placements.

Several workers shared feelings of guilt as people feel forced to choose between their own safety and the needs of the people they are trying to support. Many stories highlighted that managers do not know how to respond to this crisis, are paranoid about serious case reviews highlighting failings, and are increasing control and reducing dialogue with workers as a result. Alongside this, the government clearly is using this period of shock to force its own agenda of privatisation and reducing regulation.

Throughout all of this, we remembered the workers who have died of COVID-19.

During discussion, themes emerged around the disconnect between social workers across the UK:

  • Expectations of working conditions and our role are varying wildly from local authority to local authority, which is keeping us from coming together with one voice to protest. If we do not know what is happening a few miles away, how much harder it becomes to recognise that our own situation is not ok. There is no consistency of experience – its each local authority for themselves. Survival of the fittest.
  • Our government will change legislation without consultation and will demand that we as social workers deliver their agenda. What are the main social work bodies doing to challenge the terrifying deregulation of social work services?
  • There is a burning desire for better amongst workers. This does not simply mean better working conditions; this means better service for the families we are trying to support. If we can suddenly house those living on the streets and eradicate rough sleeping, then long term change really is possible. Flexible and responsive community-based action is saving lives and that’s where the future of social work needs to lie, if it is to offer anything beyond monitoring and the gatekeeping of limited resources. We want a new normal.
  • There is a huge groundswell in political activism amongst many who were never agitated before.  Senior figures in the medical and care profession are outspoken in their criticism of the government. There is a new public concept of what a skilled and essential worker is; of the role of migrant workers; of the importance of renationalised care services. SWAN must continue to build alliances and ensure social workers can get involved in political action.

These themes are informing a set of demands that we hope to pull together, potentially after the next Workers’ Experience meeting.  Please consider joining this safe forum and telling us what working life is like for you, and the people you are working to support. Alternatively, email us your story at

Join Sharing Practitioners’ Experiences Online Forum

We will be hosting an online forum for social workers across the UK to discuss what is happening to social work right now during the Covid-19 crisis but also what has to change. The crisis has highlighted problems in an already stretched system that has thrown an underlying anger into a howl of rage, as social workers we need to connected to fight for a better social work and society.

You can register online via Eventbrite here. Prior to the meeting you will be sent an email with details to participate.

This will be a private meeting where you will be able to share your experience and fight back so join us and let us build the resistance to the crisis.

WATCH: SWAN & IFSW Episode 4

The fourth installment of our webinar series with International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). We were privileged to be joined by Robert and Janestic to discuss the response and demands on social workers in Uganda and Brazil, detailing the root causes of the pandemic and the issues preexisting Covid-19. Rory Truell, secretary-general of IFSW and Iain Ferguson discussed the implications for social work internationally and the need for global campaigns and resistance not just to Covid-19 but also to neoliberal managerialism and capitalism.

We will continue to work with IFSW on webinars that tackle social work issues, more news to follow!