Safeguarding in social isolation: how social care teams are adapting to the new normal

We are all adapting to life in “lockdown”. For many of us this is a period of transition which will require some changes to our normal daily routine, perhaps working from home or socialising less. But what if you are a vulnerable person who is already socially isolated or if the place you call home is not safe?

The First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon in a briefing to the media stressed that life shouldn’t feel normal, but for many people who work in social care or social services they are trying to carry on as normal, providing key services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Social care teams across the county are working flat out to ensure they can maintain vital services and provide support and care to vulnerable adults and at risk children. Advice has been published by the government and by professional bodies like the BASW  (British Association of Social Workers) to try and provide some guidance to frontline care staff. But the reality is that care workers, both in social work and residential care are having to adapt to new and unprecedented circumstances to keep vulnerable people safe in our communities.

Funding for councils announced to support continuity of care

Councils have been allocated £1.6bn of funding by the Chancellor, designed to help them manage the impact of Covid-19 on services, including social care. Additional measures also include £1.3bn which is designed to help the discharge of patients from hospitals to continue their care in a community setting, to free up vital NHS resources over the coming weeks.

Councils have been advised to use this money as they see fit. However, one key priority is the continuity of care for service users, particularly as the virus spreads further into the community and there is a greater chance of care staff having to self-isolate and remove themselves from the workforce for a period.

Another measure designed to help ease this pressure on frontline staff are the social care clauses included in the emergency Coronavirus bill which temporarily remove the duties placed on councils to provide adult social care to all who are eligible. Instead councils will be able to prioritise care for those they consider to be most at risk in the event that adult social care services become overwhelmed. However these measures have been met with criticism from some charities who have said they will place already vulnerable adults at even greater risk.

Concerns raised for vulnerable children

The Children’s Commissioner for England has raised concerns about children who live in chaotic households, impacted by domestic abuse or substance abuse, and the effects that social distancing could have on their physical and mental wellbeing. For many children who are on the radar of social services, lockdown could be an especially isolating and difficult time. Additional concerns have been raised about vulnerable care leavers and young homeless people.

Government plans have ensured that some places have been kept in schools for vulnerable children to continue to attend. The definition of “vulnerable children” outlined by the government advice includes all children supported by social care, including those on child in need and child protection plans, looked-after children, children with disabilities, and children with education, health and care plans. However, the plan has drawn some criticism, including around its potential for heightening stigma experienced by children, and for putting the health of foster and kinship carers at risk.

How staff are adapting to new ways of working

It is not news that even before the outbreak of Covid-19 in the UK, the social care system was under significant stress.

Increased demands on those who work in residential and domiciliary settings include the practical challenges, increasing use of PPE, infection control and refresher training regarding contingency and emergency plans for residential care homes and challenges with supplies, including food and medication for residents. Additional challenges include the social and emotional stress of residents who may not receive visitors and must, where possible, socially distance from others.

Those who work in child and family social work are having to be increasingly flexible, managing many more cases and where possible managing elements of their work remotely via telephone or videoconferencing. Essential services are being prioritised.

In some instances there have been discussions around inviting final year social work students, or students studying social care to help support staff with additional tasks, or as has been the case with the NHS inviting retired colleagues back for a period to help already stretched teams.

An uncertain next few weeks

Many social workers and care staff have raised concerns around continuing to carry out their statutory duties as the population enters a lockdown phase and the additional risks this not only places on them as frontline staff but also the additional risks it may present to vulnerable children and adults.

Many are calling for explicit guidance from government on how social carers and social workers can be best supported to safeguard people at particular risk of harm, isolation and neglect. This includes practical support like the allocation of protective equipment, the enabling of improved sharing of information via digital channels and professional support, including the implications for registration if they are unable to meet duties, timescales or usual legal compliance during this crisis.

As the care system and its staff begin to feel the strain caused by this outbreak, calls are being made for social care to be recognised and acknowledged by government and others as a vital service. While one charity, the Care Workers Charity is launching a scheme to provide grants for those care workers who need to self isolate, many of whom will do so without pay, the GMB union have warned the coronavirus crisis could lead to the total collapse of the care system. It said care staff were being left with no protection against the virus, no childcare and poverty sick pay if they become infected.

Staff safety and continuity of service are clearly the priorities for the social care sector as we begin this period of unprecedented “lockdown”. It is clear more guidance and support is needed for staff who are on the frontline as they continue to deliver vital care and support services to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in reading:

Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

‘Digital prescribing’ – could tech provide the solution to loneliness in older people?

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