Virtual reality: a game changer for mental health treatment?

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Demand for mental health treatment in the UK far outstrips supply. And the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced many primary care services to think creatively not only about demand and supply, which has increased further during the pandemic, but also about delivery. GPs and community mental health teams in particular are thinking about more innovative ways to deliver remote support to people with mental health conditions, including the use of Telehealth and virtual reality (VR) platforms.

People are probably most familiar with VR in a digital gaming context, with devices like Oculus headsets offering immersive gaming experiences where players can place themselves “in the game”, but it has been suggested that integrating VR, alongside other telehealth options like apps and videoconferencing into mental health consultation and treatment could make counselling and alternative treatment options more accessible to those living and working remotely. Early research suggests that while discussions about investigating the benefits of this type of delivery of care have been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, researchers and practitioners were already beginning to explore how VR and Telehealth could be a tool that could be utilised more regularly in the treatment and engagement of people with mental health conditions, not just during periods where face to face contact is a challenge.

Blended treatments to help improve outcomes

Telehealth encompasses a number of different approaches and techniques, including using platforms like skype for mobile conferencing, or mobile apps to help people manage conditions and to help deliver some treatment options. It has previously been used in other areas of medicine, for example to help those with chronic conditions self-manage, with various levels of success and uptake.

One foundation embracing remote mental health support, even before the arrival of coronavirus, is Greater Manchester mental health foundation trust who use a mobile app called ClinTouch, to support people recovering from psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Although patients will typically see a care co-ordinator monthly, symptoms of a relapse can appear within days; with the app, users are asked how they feel a few times a day, and an alert is generated if a relapse looks likely.  Some NHS organisations have also adopted telepsychiatry – videoconferencing therapy sessions. 

Using VR for remote therapy almost takes telehealth a step further, and involves using a complete virtual environment, with the potential for this to be integrated into treatment plans, so clinicians can, for example, create a setting which looks like the inside of their office, or use virtual environments to model external scenarios that may cause anxiety to help patients practice coping techniques like breathing exercises.

One of the potential extended uses for VR and telehealth in a clinical mental health treatment setting which has emerged is its application for rural populations, or for people who are isolating because of exposure to coronavirus. However, this has raised some additional questions about the potential barriers to uptake exacerbated by digital illiteracy and poor access to digital devices, as well as the problem of poor or slow internet connections, something which will need to be considered by health boards if they decide to offer these treatment options.

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More research is needed, and is being done

While recent research has shown face-to-face therapy remains the optimal treatment method in mental health care, VR-based therapy has been found to be more effective than Skype-based or phone only counselling. The research also suggests VR-based Telehealth sessions could improve engagement, compared to phone only sessions and greatly reduce dropout rates for clients which in turn can support positive clinical outcomes. It appears the general consensus is that self-service, VR and automated technology, in the form of apps and notifications could support and augment healthcare professionals and help support the delivery of more traditional approaches.

The virtual reality lab at the NIHR-Wellcome Trust-King’s Clinical Research facility aims to improve the understanding of the mechanisms that play a role in the onset and maintenance of mental health problems. They use virtual reality environments to assess and develop treatments to improve the well-being of people with mental health problems.

Research is also being done on the specific reaction to young people of engaging with digitally driven treatment options. There are some suggestions that the delivery of digital interventions to support young people with mental health problems may help them to engage more, in part because they are more familiar with digital platforms and may feel more comfortable using them day-to-day, however there is also a suggestion that young people also prefer the feeling of “distance” and “impersonality” that a digital platform provides which can lead to some feeling more able to express how they are really feeling, compared to a face to face meeting with a clinician which can sometimes be a stressful and intimidating experience.

Where next?

So far in clinical psychology and psychiatry, the primary focus of VR has been its role in treating anxiety and stress-related disordersspecific phobiaspanic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However the disruption to face to face mental health treatments caused by the coronavirus pandemic has led to clinicians thinking even more creatively about the applications of VR and telehealth options to help support the treatment of people with a wider range of mental health conditions.

While it is clear that virtual treatments should not replace the face to face consultation in mental health treatment entirely, research suggests there is a growing role for VR and Telehealth options in augmenting face to face treatment options and that they could be offered as an option for those who are unable to attend face to face sessions. Telehealth and remote treatments are something which will continue to be explored beyond the coronavirus pandemic and could soon be integrated into practice as part of the standard delivery of mental health care and treatment.


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The Covid-19 knock-on: public health and the impact of delays in non-urgent treatment and diagnosis

Since the beginning of the pandemic, concerns have been raised about the wider public health impacts of coronavirus. In addition to strains on acute NHS care services on the frontline, there are warnings about the additional public health impacts of delays to preventative healthcare measures like screening and routine medical care in the form of pre-planned operations for long-term chronic and non-urgent conditions.

At the outbreak of the pandemic many hospitals took the decision to delay or stop entirely routine pre-planned surgeries and preventative screening and diagnostics. Some even suspended treatment for more urgent care like cancer treatment on a short term basis. While many of these services have resumed since the beginning of the pandemic, albeit with a backlog of patients now to be seen, significant strain on the NHS as we come into the winter months because of  coronavirus is still anticipated. As a result, many hospitals are not working at full capacity in order to prepare for potential increases in admissions due to coronavirus or staff shortages over the winter.

In many areas this has led to a backlog of care, both for those patients already in the system awaiting routine surgeries, as well as those who are yet to be diagnosed but would have been through preventative screening programmes run by the NHS.

Delays in healthcare and routine screening programmes 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, many NHS hospital trusts were under criticism because of the significant length of waiting times for people who required routine operations, which in some parts of the UK can be as long as three years. Doctors across the UK are now warning that these delays could be increased further unless the NHS receives additional support to increase capacity across all areas of care  not just urgent care in the coming months.

Data released by NHS England in October 2020 showed the numbers waiting over a year for hospital treatment have hit a 12-year high, with almost 2 million patients waiting more than the target time of 18 weeks for routine care.

It has been suggested that delays in diagnosis and routine treatments could lead to an increased number of hospitalisations further down the line, requiring higher levels of care, longer lengths of stay, and increased hospital readmissions.

A reluctance to visit hospitals and use primary care services

Government messages to ‘protect the NHS’ may have had the unintended consequence of discouraging people from seeking urgent medical care when it was required for fear of using services unnecessarily or for fear of contracting the virus when attending hospital or primary care settings.

Research from the Health Foundation found that there had been a significant reduction in the number of GP consultations since the start of the pandemic which has led to concerns about the care of non-covid patients, patients with long term health conditions and also the potential for delayed diagnosis. Primary care consultations also reduced and have remained low consistently since the beginning of lockdown.

Figures have also shown a reduction in the number of referrals, medical tests, new prescriptions and immunisations. While some of these reductions are the result of advice to delay routine referrals to free up capacity for hospitals to deal with the potentially large number of cases of Covid-19, routine referrals have still not recovered to pre-lockdown levels.

 

A potential future crisis for the NHS and a ticking time bomb for public health

Doctors are now warning that the treatment backlog which has been caused by the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to diagnostic delays and screening programmes, may lead to a future crisis of care or significant delays in care for people waiting to receive more routine treatment.

Delays in care have not only been reported in cases of physical health. There have also been significant delays in referrals for those seeking treatment for a mental health condition, an area of the NHS which was already facing significant delays in referral and transfer of care even before the pandemic. Research suggests that incidence of mental illness during the coronavirus pandemic increased. However, the numbers of people accessing services and being referred for treatment have not increased proportionate to this. People with mental health conditions may have been unable to access appropriate support through primary care pathways, which could potentially impact on their long term health and care.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the wider social determinants of health such as employment and poverty. Public Health England (PHE) published a monitoring tool which looks at the wider impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on population health, and it is likely that the knock-on impact of the virus could have far reaching consequences for public health in the future as the health implications of lockdown, lack of social interaction and rising unemployment could be significant. 

Where next?

While the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic for the NHS will not be going away anytime soon, it is clear that it will be necessary for the NHS and other supporting services to act now to prevent a longer term public health crisis. It is critical that we not only focus on the acute care of Covid-19 patients, but also proactively manage patients without Covid-19, particularly those with time-sensitive, complex and long term conditions who are postponing their care. We must also consider the knock-on impacts of delayed diagnosis for those people who missed out on routine screening or who were unable or too afraid to visit their GP or hospital. This is important not only to sustain health and life, but to preserve hospital and NHS capacity in the future.


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Domestic violence during quarantine: the hidden crime of lockdown

Domestic violence is often described as a “hidden epidemic” within the UK. Even before Coronavirus forced the country into lockdown, support services faced funding and resourcing challenges, and many people fleeing domestic abuse already faced barriers to accessing support,  but as social distancing has become the dominant policy response to suppress Covid-19, it is clear there have been unintended consequences for domestic abuse victims which have exacerbated the challenges in providing and accessing support.

An increase in reporting of domestic violence

Figures show that calls to domestic abuse services have increased significantly worldwide during the Coronavirus pandemic. Calls and online enquiries to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse line increased by 25% after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020. More than 40,000 calls and contacts were made to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline during the first three months of lockdown; in June, calls and contacts were nearly 80% higher than usual, according to the charity Refuge, who runs the service.

An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama found that three-quarters of victims told them that lockdown had made it harder for them to escape their abusers and in many cases had intensified the abuse they received and research by a team at LSE showed that while the overall level of domestic abuse crimes (not calls) have remained stable when compared with the long-term trend, calls to the Metropolitan Police between March and July which related to reports of domestic abuse increased by 11% compared with the same period in 2019.

This same research from LSE also noted some changes in the characteristics of the cases being reported, with calls more likely to be made by “third parties”, such as neighbours, and that while abuse by ex-partners fell by 9.4%, abuse by current partners and family members increased significantly – by 8.5% and 16.4% respectively.

In early May, the government announced a £76m package to support the “most vulnerable in our society”, including victims of domestic violence and modern slavery, rough sleepers and vulnerable children. However, with many charities which support victims of domestic abuse struggling with the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and facing a significant rise in demand for their services, concerns are being raised that the availability of specialist support could be reduced, meaning people exposed to domestic abuse may not be able to access the help they need.

Local level support for vulnerable people fleeing violence

Lockdown offered an opportunity for local authorities to think about the support offered to vulnerable people, including those who were homeless due to fleeing violence.

In Greater Manchester GMCA formed partnerships early on to secure accommodation for women fleeing violence to ensure they would have a safe space. The accommodation was intended for women who are homeless or facing homelessness, including rough sleeping or in shared supported accommodation where the service was unable to meet public health guidelines regarding Covid-19. This included women experiencing domestic abuse, trauma, or contact with the justice system as well as other multiple disadvantages. The service delivery model was designed to be a Trauma Responsive Service Model in order to create a safe and secure environment for each resident and to avoid further traumatisation. The process marked a departure from how cases of female homelessness due to domestic abuse would typically have been handled pre lockdown.

Halls of residence at the University of Cambridge were also offered to homeless women and their children after students vacated them early due to the pandemic. St Catherine’s College formed a partnership with Cambridge Women’s Aid to provide over 1000 nights of secure supported accommodation during the lockdown period.

In both instances the partnerships allowed for practical and quick solutions to provide support to vulnerable women, filling the support gap some traditional routes like refuge shelters were unable to fill because Covid 19- restrictions on the mixing of households meant that homeless and refuge centres were operating with a limited capacity.

Final thoughts

People fleeing domestic violence already faced significant barriers to finding the safety offered by refuge services, even before the lockdown imposed by the Coronavirus pandemic. But we know now that the pandemic has made it harder for survivors to leave an abuser or to seek help, that their experiences of abuse were made worse by the conditions imposed by lockdown and that the circumstances gave abusers more control than ever. When the pandemic is over the majority of local services expect to see a spike in people looking to access their life-saving support, but at the same time the pandemic has threatened the sustainability of the network of services which makes up this support, many of whom were already experiencing a funding struggle.

The work being done to help support vulnerable people fleeing abuse and people facing barriers to accessing refuge is more important now than it has ever been, and continuing support from government and effective partnership working will be vital to ensuring these services continue in the future.


If you need help or support in the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid online.

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How the COVID-19 homelessness response shows opportunities for future progress

Before the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, there were already discussions around how the spread of COVID-19 would impact some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There was an acute awareness not only of the significant levels of homelessness in our towns and cities but that the number of people who needed support was growing at an alarming rate. Strategies for prevention and outreach programmes to help break the cycle of homelessness through a network of support systems for homeless people were helping to a certain extent in some areas, but the problem was (is) chronic and the concern among people who worked in, and had experience of, the sector in relation to the potential impact of COVID-19 was growing.

Homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Surprisingly though, in many areas the response to support the UK’s homeless populations was swift, definitive and all encompassing. Partnerships were formed with local hotel chains – the GLA partnership with multiple hotel groups as part of the Pan London Placement scheme is probably the best publicised but individual arrangements have sprung up across the country and people were moved from the street into accommodation which was self-contained and would allow them to effectively isolate if they showed any symptoms of COVID-19.

In March, minister Robert Jennick announced £3.2 million of funding for councils to help them protect local rough sleepers from the pandemic and MHCLG, councils, the voluntary sector and those who work within homelessness outreach specifically have all mobilised to form an effective network of support for many people who had previously been sleeping on the streets.

The response to moving those who were sleeping rough off the streets has been unprecedented, as is the volume of people who have been helped. Many people have been accommodated regardless of their “local connection” or their “recourse to public funds”, something which previously was a significant barrier to many people being housed in temporary accommodation by their local authority.

A new wave of homelessness?

However despite the significant progress made, there are growing concerns about a “second wave of homelessness”- people who become homeless off the back of the stagnation and collapse of some areas of the economy, particularly those in low paid and precarious work i.e. hospitality and retail sector. Additionally, there are signs that some especially vulnerable groups have not engaged with the process or that some people have became homeless after the initial offer of support was rolled out. These include people from migrant backgrounds, and people with acute and severe mental ill health.

Things can’t go back to the way they were

One thing is clear, according to professionals, things can’t be allowed to return to the way they were. In some instances this is for practical reasons, and in other instances because we have been able to see what it is possible to achieve when people co-operate and there is a collective will to progress.

The use of communal shelters, one of the main ways of delivering emergency accommodation for many years may have to stop, or at least be re-organised to avoid multiple people sharing facilities like bathrooms or sleeping in rooms with multiple beds. A move towards more “pod style” contained living may be a way forward, but it will take a shift in design to accommodate people safely in the future.

The response has shown that it is vital to develop links between housing and health, and that the integration of services with public health to create wrap-around care (which is something which is currently being co-ordinated in response to the pandemic) should be maintained going forward.

The pandemic response has also shown that multiple organisations can work well effectively together and that the red tape, perceived layers of bureaucracy and challenges of different ways of working can be overcome if there is collective understanding and will. These barriers can be overcome to create really effective and much needed services and support for some of our most vulnerable citizens.

Concerns have been raised around future funding, and in particular the risks of funding being stopped abruptly or the supply being removed at short notice, for example if hotels re-open and councils then struggle to identify appropriate accommodation for people to transition into. The sector has stressed that councils should be planning for this transition phase to prevent people returning to the streets and dis-engaging with services.

Opportunities to learn lessons

At an online event hosted by the Centre for London, which brought together professionals from within the sector in London to reflect on the response to COVID-19, somewhat surprisingly, the atmosphere was one of optimism that this could be the start of a new way of working. There is hope that a “can do” and “get things done attitude” which had been catalysed by the need for urgency because of the spread of COVID-19 can be harnessed and that this mindset should be embedded into practice going forward.

One of the main questions that appears to be raised is, if we can do it now, with such urgency, why couldn’t we do it before, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the collective will and the government support doesn’t disappear post COVID-19? This is something local authorities, homeless outreach groups and other partners will have to grapple with over the coming weeks and months.

The response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. It has shown that with understanding, flexibility and effective partnership working to deliver coordinated services (as well as appropriate supply and funding) that tackling homelessness, or at least offering more to our homeless communities in terms of effective long term support, can be achieved.

There is a collective sense within the sector that the steps forward taken as a result of this pandemic should not be allowed to regress in the future, but should be strengthened and built upon to provide more effective support going forward for homeless communities across the UK.


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Read some of our other blogs on housing and homelessness:

Digital infrastructure supporting health care during the COVID-19 pandemic

Healthcare is a key frontline service in the response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The NHS has had to react at pace to plan and deliver services in new and innovative ways.

Digital healthcare solutions are at the fore of ensuring not only the delivery of acute care for those patients suffering from COVID-19 but are also supporting the successful continuity of care and the day to day running of a health service which still needs to maintain “normal service” as well as its pandemic response. Digital infrastructure is helping the NHS and other partners to adapt and to meet the demand for health and care in a number of ways.

Supporting the delivery of care

In many ways, the NHS and frontline care in particular were already making inroads towards transitioning to digital and online platforms before the pandemic emerged. Many GP surgeries allow online appointment booking, and where appropriate, monitoring of those with long term conditions can be done remotely through at-home testing facilities, such as home heart monitors or monitors to help people monitor their diabetes.

Many care providers also already offer telehealth solutions for clients, and patient records are now stored online. However, in many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has catalysed uptake of digital solutions to healthcare diagnosis and delivery, with an increase in online consultations, greater use of the NHS Digital and NHS24 online and app platforms and a rise in the development of digital solutions to better support care in the community.

Support and training for frontline staff

In addition to supporting the direct delivery of care to patients, digital health infrastructure is also being adapted and used to deliver training and support to staff on the frontline. Blogs and online forums, including social media groups are enabling people to share experiences and best practice, and to create a sense of community among healthcare workers. In addition, virtual and e-learning opportunities are being developed to enable staff to access educational activities remotely. These include supporting the rapid education of the healthcare workforce in how best to manage the respiratory conditions encountered, as well as providing education to staff who may have been redeployed to other departments or settings as a result of the pandemic response. Online learning has also been used to help train volunteers and help the public to keep up to date with the latest developments across the health service.

Beyond healthcare to support the response to the pandemic

Artificial intelligence and data analytics also have a vital role to play in helping prevent the spread of coronavirus and other infectious diseases as digital solutions look to be developed to help beyond acute healthcare responses.

Predictive analytics and scenario modelling can be used to help identify those populations who are at risk of spreading the virus and of falling most severely ill to help support shielding campaigns and protect vulnerable groups as lockdown measures ease.

A project run by UK firm Biobank is looking to use samples collected by volunteers to map genetic sequencing in order to identify whether certain genetic characteristics make people more predisposed to become seriously ill, or more likely to contract the virus in the first place. This may help in the development of a vaccine and can also help identify those groups who will be most vulnerable when lockdown conditions are lifted so that they can be monitored more effectively.

Modelling and analytics can also be used to try and project any potential “second waves”. It is hoped that AI, analytics and machine learning will be able to help organisations learn from events such as the SARS epidemic, as well as quickly creating new knowledge from the millions of data points being generated in this outbreak.

Final thoughts

The significant humanitarian response to this global pandemic is being underpinned by a digital infrastructure, the extent of which we have never had at our disposal before. This digital support, of care delivery, communication, analytics, and modelling is being used in conjunction with insight from health and scientific specialists to try and help us find a path through this pandemic, deliver care, aid recovery and prevent re-emergence.

Making best use of the data and digital capacity we have throughout our health and care infrastructure will be a key part in preparing and meeting the needs and challenges that communities are facing.


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Further reading: articles on COVID-19 from The Knowledge Exchange blog

Living life in full colour: exploring the relationship between colour, design, behaviour and emotion

Seeing red…. green with jealousy….. feeling blue. Associating colours with emotions is not new, but increasingly, psychologists are being asked to explore the relationship between colour, emotion and its impact in a number of different settings, including learning in classroom settings, the design of the built environment, including work spaces and travel hubs, and improving wellbeing as a result.

Colour is a powerful tool. It can be used to get attention, enhance clarity, establish a code, label and differentiate items, as well as to influence behaviour or learning outcomes. For example in schools we are often told to use blue or black ink. Red ink is supposed to be used by teachers to correct assignments, notebooks, and class work. This is a deliberate tool to draw our attention to the mistake we make, designed to help enhance our learning outcomes, in the sense that by drawing attention to the mistake we will remember not to repeat the points highlighted.

“Bad” and “good” colours

Studies have disagreed on how exactly our association between colour and emotions develops. Some have suggested it is an instinctive reaction, something primal which suggests to us that things that are red in colour are dangerous or negative, while blues and yellows signal happier less aggressive colours.

However, others have suggested that the connotations we associate with colour are learned, albeit from a very young age. We associate some colours as being “good” and others as “bad” and this impacts how we interact around them in spaces like classrooms and workspaces. The meaning of colours is culturally-specific and differs around the world in different societies and groups.

However, a third view is that colour theory is much more complex than simply yellow = happy and blue = sad. Colours can have several meanings, and can encourage an audience to feel or act in certain ways depending on when and how they are used, and in some instances depending on personal experiences which people link to specific colours. This is the reason why the literature on colour is so contested; in many instances it blurs the boundary between our instinctive associations of colours and those associations we create ourselves through experiences.

Image “Harvey_Nash_13″ by K2 Space is licensed under CC BY 2.0

How colours are impacting on the design of our spaces

Knowing how colour can affect behaviours is informative for designers and psychologists in a number of environments, including in schools, offices or hospitals. In a learning context, such as in a school using “engaging” hues (warm colours such as red, orange, and yellow) to prevent learners from getting bored, and passive hues (cold colours such as green and blue) to keep learners calm can help with learning, but getting this balance right is important.

A number of studies have looked at the impact of classroom design, including use of colour on the learning and behavioural outcomes of both neurodiverse, and neurotypical children, with many emphasising that overstimulation, particularly of young children through excessive use of bright colour can create a disruptive classroom environment and make it difficult to encourage concentration and staying on task. However, some colour in specific areas of the classroom is good to help with engagement and stimulation.

Similarly, colours have been used by architects and designers in their choice of building material or building design to help encourage feelings of calm or reflection. This is particularly the case in transport hubs like airports and in hospitals or care facilities. Using fresh and calming colours which relate strongly to nature is also a technique used by office designers to help create the feeling of open calm and fresh spaces to help improve working environments and improve productivity.

The design of the built environment and how “green” and “blue” features which incorporate natural materials (green spaces and water have a positive impact on mental and physical wellbeing) has been widely discussed by planners and architects. The evidence generally supports the view that the inclusion of green spaces, promotes health and wellbeing across the life course. This combination of colour and the integration of nature into spaces is being used increasingly in the design of buildings and  in master planning for large urban projects.

Final thoughts

Colour and emotion both play important roles in our capacity to learn and be productive. The association between colour and our emotions and actions is complex and a source of disagreement for some psychologists. Colour has been found to affect how people feel both psychologically and physically. Understanding how colour and emotion relate and how colour can be used to change environments to encourage particular feelings of calmness or concentration, particularly in schools and workplaces is something that will be further explored by designers.

Colour should be understood as part of a wider “toolkit” used by designers and architects to ensure that we are building better places that create environments which support and promote wellbeing, encourage positive emotions and create more effective spaces for us to work, learn and interact in.


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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.

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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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An app a day … how m-health could revolutionise our engagement with the NHS

It seems like almost every day now we see in the news and read in newspapers about the increasing pressures on our NHS, strains on resources and the daily challenges facing already overworked GP staff.

Mobile health applications (m-health apps) are increasingly being integrated into practice and are now being used to perform some tasks which would have traditionally been performed by general practitioners (GPs), such as those involved in promoting health, preventing disease, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, and signposting to other health and support services.

How m-health is transforming patient interactions with the NHS

In 2015 International Longevity Centre research found some distinct demographic divides on health information seeking behaviour. While 50% of those aged 25-34 preferred to receive health information online, only 15% of those aged 65 and over preferred the internet. The internet remained the favourite source of health information for all age groups younger than 55. And while not specifically referring to apps, the fact that many people in this research expressed a preference to seek health information online indicates that there is potential for wider use of effective, and NHS approved health apps.

A report published in 2019 by Reform highlighted the unique opportunity that m-health offered in the treatment and management of mental health conditions. The report found that in the short to medium-term, much of the potential of apps and m-health lies in relieving the pressure on frontline mental health services by giving practitioners more time to spend on direct patient care and providing new ways to deliver low-intensity, ongoing support. In the long-term, the report suggests, data-driven technologies could lead to more preventative and precise care by allowing for new types of data-collection and analysis to enhance understandings of mental health.

M-health, e-health and telecare are also potentially important tools in the delivery of rural care, particularly to those who are elderly or who live in remote parts of the UK. This enables them to submit relevant readings to a GP or hospital consultant without having to travel to see them in person and allowing them to receive updates, information and advice on their condition without having to travel to consult a doctor or nurse face-to-face. However, some have highlighted that this removal of personal contact could leave some patients feeling isolated, unable to ask questions and impact on the likelihood of carrying out treatment, particularly among older people, if they feel it has been prescribed by a “machine” and not a doctor.

Supporting people to take ownership of their own health

Research has suggested that wearable technologies, not just m-health apps, but across-the-board, including devices like “fitbits”, are acting as incentives to help people self-regulate and promote healthier activities such as more walking or drinking more water. One study found that different tracking and monitoring tools that collect and analyse health and wellness data over time can inform consumers of their baseline activity level, encourage personal engagement in health and wellbeing, and ultimately lead to positive behavioural change. Another report from the International Longevity Centre also highlights the potential impact of apps on preventative healthcare; promoting behaviour change and encouraging people to make healthier choices such as stopping smoking or reducing alcohol intake.

Home testing kits for conditions such as bowel cancer and remote sensors to monitor blood sugar levels in type 1 diabetics are also becoming more commonplace as methods to help people take control of monitoring their own health. Roll-outs of blood pressure and heart rhythm monitors enable doctors to see results through an integrated tablet, monitor a patient’s condition remotely, make suggestions on changes to medication or pass comments on to patients directly through an email or integrated chat system, without the patient having to attend a clinic in person.

Individual test kits from private sector firms, including “Monitor My Health” are now also increasingly available for people to purchase. People purchase and complete the kits, which usually include instructions on home blood testing for conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol and vitamin D deficiency. The collected samples are then returned via post, analysed in a laboratory and the results communicated to the patient via an app, with no information about the test stored on their personal medical records. While the app results will recommend if a trip to see a GP is necessary, there is no obligation on the part of the company involved or the patient to act on the results if they choose not to. The kits are aimed at “time-poor” people over the age of 16, who want to “take control of their own healthcare”, according to the kit’s creator, but some have suggested that instead of improving the patient journey by making testing more convenient, lack of regulation could dilute the quality of testing Removing the “human element”, they warn, particularly from initial diagnosis consultations, could lead to errors.

But what about privacy?

Patient-driven healthcare which is supported and facilitated by the use of e-health technologies and m-health apps is designed to support an increased level of information flow, transparency, customisation, collaboration and patient choice and responsibility-taking, as well as quantitative, predictive and preventive aspects for each user. However, it’s not all positive, and concerns are already being raised about the collection and storage of data, its use and the security of potentially very sensitive personal data.

Data theft or loss is one of the major security concerns when it comes to using m-health apps. However, another challenge is the unwitting sharing of data by users, which despite GDPR requirements can happen when people accept terms and conditions or cookie notices without fully reading or understanding the consequences for their data. Some apps, for example, collect and anonymise data to feed into further research or analytics about the use of the app or sell it on to third parties for use in advertising.

Final thoughts

The integration of mobile technologies and the internet into medical diagnosis and treatment has significant potential to improve the delivery of health and care across the UK, easing pressure on frontline staff and services and providing more efficient care, particularly for those people who are living with long-term conditions which require monitoring and management.

However, clinicians and researchers have been quick to emphasise that while there are significant benefits to both the doctor and the patient, care must be taken to ensure that the integrity and trust within the doctor-patient relationship is maintained, and that people are not forced into m-health approaches without feeling supported to use the technology properly and manage their conditions effectively. If training, support and confidence of users in the apps is not there, there is the potential for the roll-out of apps to have the opposite effect, and lead to more staff answering questions on using the technology than providing frontline care.


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A home for life? Developing lifetime neighbourhoods to support ageing well in place

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The UK population is ageing. A 2019 report from AgeUK using data from the ONS highlighted that there are nearly 12 million (11,989,322) people aged 65 and above in the UK of which: 5.4 million people are aged 75+, 1.6 million are aged 85+, over 500,000 people are 90+ (579,776) and 14,430 are centenarians. By 2030, one in five people in the UK (21.8%) will be aged 65 or over, 6.8% will be aged 75+ and 3.2% will be aged 85+.

Allowing people to live well in old age in their own homes is something which housebuilders and planners are giving increasing thought to, both from a wellbeing perspective for residents, and a financial perspective for services, including the NHS and social care. The creation of “lifetime neighbourhoods” – spaces where people can live well from birth to retirement – brings together a number of elements: providing easy access to services; creating physical spaces which are suitable for people with disabilities and mobility issues to navigate; and allowing people to maintain those social and community ties which are associated with wellbeing, which can sometimes be lost with forced moves to residential care or a prolonged stay in hospital.

Homes for life

Building homes that are suitable for an ageing population is an important first step in creating lifetime neighbourhoods. However, planners and developers are starting to realise that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all when it comes to housing for older people. As with the general population, older people are not a homogenous group, and while some may need the support provided by extra care or sheltered housing projects, or may need single-storey open plan living to accommodate mobility aids or telecare packages, others simply want to live in a space which enables them to live comfortably in a community which suits their needs in terms of location and availability of services.

Designing and building a range of different housing types, which includes single-storey homes, extra care and sheltered housing, as well as stock which is suitable for people looking to downsize, is a key part of the development of effective lifetime neighbourhoods. This can free up larger family homes for people with children to move into and ensure that people are not kept unnecessarily in hospital because housing cannot be adapted to meet changing needs. A 2014 Age UK report showed that the scarcity of suitable and affordable retirement housing is a barrier to downsizing, highlighting that retirement housing makes up just 5-6% of all older people’s housing. Now groups like the Housing Made for Everyone coalition (HoME) are calling on the government to make all new homes accessible and adaptable as standard to help meet growing need in the future.

Social infrastructure such as libraries, community centres, local shops and good transport links are also a key aspect to planning effective lifetime neighbourhoods, as is ensuring accessibility of services such as GP appointments. Effective infrastructure planning can help enable the whole community, not just older people to feel connected to their local area, both physically and socially which can really help to support the idea of lifetime neighbourhoods and enable people to live well regardless of age.

Preventing loneliness and isolation in older age

Preventing loneliness and isolation in old age by creating spaces which facilitate engagement and encourage people to have positive social interactions is important to ensure that everyone within the community feels respected, involved and appreciated. However, the challenges are different depending on the nature of the community in question. In rural areas, social isolation can be compounded by a lack of appropriate transport infrastructure or the removal of key services at a local level in favour of “hubs” which are often located in towns and cities; in urban areas, loneliness can be exacerbated by the chaotic, hostile or intimidating environment that living in a densely populated area can have, a flip side to the benefits of density.

Ambition for ageing is a programme which aims to discover what works in reducing social isolation by taking an asset based approach to creating age friendly communities. Asset based approaches seek to identify the strengths and the abilities of people and communities, rather than their deficits. The asset based approach to creating age friendly neighbourhoods also seeks to use the experiences and  attributes that all members of the community have to help make the community better. To create effective age friendly neighbourhoods older people need to have opportunities to participate and feel that they are making a positive contribution.

A space for all ages

While much of the research and literature on lifetime neighbourhoods focuses on older people, it is also important to ensure that spaces meet the needs of all groups in the community, including children and young people and people with disabilities. Creating places which balance the needs of all groups within the community is an important consideration for planners.

The physical environment can be as important as the built environment and infrastructure development when it comes to developing lifetime neighbourhoods. Spaces which make use of natural and green infrastructure with lots of green and open public spaces have been shown to help improve mental health and wellbeing, as well as encouraging people of all ages to be more active. A number of design factors such as good paving, effective street lighting and easy access to seating and public toilets make neighbourhoods accessible to older people and people with impairments. Poor design can ‘disable’ people in their immediate environment and act as a barrier to participation in local activities.

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Final thoughts

For lifetime neighbourhoods to be successful, it is necessary that there is access to a range of appropriate housing options. In addition, the planning of public, open and green spaces, availability of transport links and local community infrastructure like libraries, police stations and local shops are all vitally important to ensure communities can thrive.

It is clear that while there is demand for more suitable housing for people in older age, the location and type of housing being built must also meet the needs and expectations of older residents, including good connections to local infrastructure, and safe accommodation. Projects which bring a range of ages together can be effective in strengthening community cohesion, can help challenge stereotypes and can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Collectively these different elements feed into the creation of lifetime neighbourhoods which can support people to live well into retirement and beyond.


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A long way from home: county lines, serious organised crime and exploitation in the UK

Gangs and serious organised crime groups are increasingly targeting vulnerable people, including children and young people to become involved in drug trafficking and other kinds of illegal activities. Police and local authorities assisted by third sector and charity partners are trying to stem the flow of vulnerable people leaving towns and cities and travelling elsewhere in the UK as part of a wider network of organised crime and exploitation. The aim is to break the chain of supply which is seeing organised crime move away from our inner cities to rural and coastal communities across the UK. From London to Liverpool, Glasgow to Cardiff, county lines practices have been growing, and solutions to prevent vulnerable people being targeted are needed urgently across the whole of the UK.

A growing emergency across the UK

Figures have shown a significant rise in the number of drug-related deaths across communities in the UK, with a significant rise in deaths among young people and among those in rural communities. While drug problems are widely considered an urban, inner-city issue, increasingly communities in rural and coastal areas are struggling with drug-related crime and deaths as new markets and channels for moving drugs across the country are opened up by organised crime groups and gangs.

Research has shown that, unlike in previous decades, these are not just the result of social, ad hoc sharing and transporting of drugs, but strategic and coordinated networks designed specifically to open new markets for drugs beyond city centres and expose more communities to markets of illicit materials, including drugs. The National Crime Agency (NCA) reports that the main driver of this “county lines” practice is fundamentally the demand and supply of controlled substances within the UK and the opportunity of “new” drug markets to make significant amounts of money. Analysis from the NCA indicates that an individual line can make profits in excess of £80,000 per year and can make thousands of pounds of profit from one single trip.

An easy target

One of the defining features now recognised as a key part of county lines drug trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerable and socially excluded people.This offers a degree of safety for those at the top of the network who avoid getting their hands dirty by delegating work to those further down the chain. Vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, care leavers or young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, are identified by county lines groups both as a target market for the drugs trade and for “recruitment”, involving them in the storage, transportation or selling of drugs in these new sites. This means that, on the whole, these groups are being disproportionately impacted. Many often don’t see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality. Commentators and practitioners have stressed that an urgent and powerful response to safeguard these groups is needed.

A 2017 report from the Children’s Commissioner estimates there are at least 46,000 children in England who are involved in gang activity. It is estimated that around 4,000 teenagers in London alone are being exploited through child criminal exploitation or ‘county lines’. In March 2018, the Children’s Society published the second edition of Criminal exploitation and County Lines: A toolkit for working with children and young people. It summarised the risks to children and young people who become involved in county lines as including:

  • physical injuries: risk of serious violence and death
  • emotional and psychological trauma
  • sexual violence: sexual assault, rape, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation/revenge/punishment, internally inserting drugs
  • debt bondage – young people and families being ‘in debt’ to the exploiters; which is used to control the young person
  • neglect and basic needs not being met
  • living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments
  • tiredness and sleep deprivation: the child is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night
  • poor attendance and/or attainment at school/college/university

These challenges are also faced by other groups of vulnerable adults who are targeted in the same way. But while vulnerable children are subject to a compulsory referral process in relation to suspected exploitation, adults must consent to being referred, which research has suggested may be impacting the reported numbers of victims. This in turn indicates that the true number of vulnerable adults being exploited may be significantly higher.

Tackling county lines by working together

Partnership working between services which come into contact both with the county lines gangs and with the vulnerable people they exploit has been shown to be critical to facilitating an effective response and halting the spread and further development of county lines networks. However, it has also been highlighted that traditional approaches and mechanisms used to identify and safeguard vulnerable groups, particularly children, are no longer sufficient in the context of county lines child criminal exploitation (CCE), and that new guidance is needed to support practitioners in this field.

In September 2018 the National County Lines Coordination Centre was launched to crack down on drug gangs. The multi-agency team of experts from the National Crime Agency (NCA), police officers and regional organised crime units are working together, along with other partners in local areas, to build a national picture of the complexity and scale of the threat.

At a local level, pilot projects in several London boroughs, including Hackney, Islington and Lambeth and in other trial areas outside of London, such as Kent and Merseyside, have taken place. Evidence has shown that frontline services across the board play a key role in helping to identify and support those people at risk of exploitation from county lines gangs – not just police and prison service staff – but healthcare workers, social workers, teachers and youth work professionals from the public and third sectors. Working together as multi-agency partnerships, while challenging, results in the best outcomes and opportunities for intervention and support for children and vulnerable people who are at risk. It is essential that staff receive a high standard of training and that they themselves are given the time and resources needed to try and forge effective partnerships which in turn will help to identify and intervene with those at risk of gang exploitation more effectively and at an earlier stage.

Partnerships which include opportunities for staff training and guidance from third sector specialists like St Giles Trust and Safer London make use of the significant knowledge and experience held within the third sector and help local authorities to apply these to their own statutory responses. They also encourage the sharing of effective practice and knowledge on tackling exploitation across the whole of the UK, which is helping to create a more effective and joined-up approach to tackling child exploitation and the links to county lines practices. Maintaining this sharing of knowledge and skills across different sectors and professions will continue to be vital in helping to develop practice and responses that can react more effectively to exploitation in the future.

Providing a safe place and a route forward for victims of county lines exploitation

In a county lines context, better safeguarding and early intervention practices with vulnerable people serves a dual purpose: preventing the person involved being exploited and engaging in criminal activity; and disrupting the county lines operation, and subsequently the flow of illicit materials into our communities. The networks are, by their own design, elusive and hard to trace. Those involved are threatened and often trapped in roles within the network which they would otherwise be unable to escape on their own. Providing a safe space for these exploited people is an important first step in the process of tackling county lines and organised criminal networks.

Local authorities are working closely with partners to try and provide this support at a local and very personal level while trying to fit into the wider strategic process of the national response to county lines. These national and local responses are both vital in tackling county lines and the exploitation that comes with it.


TKE members can access more resources on County Lines via our website. If you are not a member, but would like more information on subscribing to TKE to gain access to more resources on a range of economic and social policy areas, get in touch with us to find out more.

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