Social Work, Covid-19 and Being Human



Social Workers have our own version of the old joke – how many social workers does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is, and always will be, ‘one, you’. We change the light bulb, we don’t refer on for someone else to sort. We need to be there when everyone else has gone home.  When we need to, we come to work in our scruffy clothes to help someone clean their flat before moving, to help them get their bond back. We get stuck in, on our hands and knees with the person, scrubbing, chatting, laughing. Doing. That’s what brought many us into social work in the first place. We are good at it. We get stuck in where and when it’s needed.  Like now.

There is of course the statutory side of Social Work. We have to do that. The regulations, statutory guidance, Court applications, legal safeguards with confusing names (CoP3, CoP10, DoLS Form 6) and of course there is the glare of the pinkest of papers and the ruminations of the latest Jones. That’s vital. But if you are reading this blog, it’s likely that you know in your heart that isn’t really fully you, that you are awkward in the role of administrators,  not really feeling comfortable in your skin, it’s time to don the scruffy clothes.

Social workers instinctively know what LJ Munby meant when he said the Local Authority is ‘a servant, not a master’. We are steeped in public service. Our interest in community led social work is because we are proud that it means going back to our roots and being of the communities we serve. We don’t want assessment forms. We are creating our own paperwork which records good conversations we have with people and reflects values and respects their wishes, feelings and beliefs. We enable people to be supported to understand risk, retain the relevant information, weigh up what being safe means to them, and communicate what they want to do as a result. Social Workers know in our hearts that the shift back in recent years to social workers being community practitioners, not simple brokers of care packages, is right.  Community led social work is our social work values, our social work ethics and our moral purpose made real.

Like most of the Country, we have been watching our news feeds and TVs and listening to our radios as they filling up with the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  But we are also human, we have families too and it is important to rest, have fun and spend time with the people we love and it is important for us that our families feel safe.  So thinking about Covid-19 is not easy because it doesn’t make us feel safe.  As Social Workers, an academic discipline grounded in social theory and the social model, we are worried about what will it mean for society over the coming months.  As practitioners in a profession which is activist by nature, we are thinking about what we can do to be helpful (yes, it is a professionally taken for granted assumption here that we can be helpful…).   The next few months will be a time when community led social work could really make a positive difference.

A lot of social work attention in the coming months will be on supporting our NHS colleagues, working collaboratively and collectively to ensure that clinically skilled nurses and Doctors are able to prioritise and concentrate on those who most need their care and it’s right that we do that. Social work has a long tradition of supporting people to stay well at home, or when they do need a stay in hospital, to help them get home with support and services.  Here at Social Work Cats the Blog, we will be supporting our commissioning colleagues to understand what support people need to do this, and whether any of the needs we see when we meet people are changing and different to what they might have usually needed.

So, we are starting to mobilise and work out how we can do our bit on a professional and a personal level.  Here’s a few things we here at Social Work Cats the Blog Site will be doing over the next few weeks at work and in our own communities, please let us know if you have other suggestions to add to this list:

  1. Visibility – People may need to see, speak to and hear from social workers more than usual over the coming months. We are planning to be much more visible to the people we support than we have ever been in the next few weeks.  Now is a good time to get up to date with advice about how to minimise the risk to yourself and the people you support from Covid-19.  BASW have really helpfully collated the national advice into a single site which we will be checking daily as the situation is changing on almost a daily basis –  If we cannot be physically visible for some people we must ensure contact. For us it means ensuring communication with the people in our communities who we know and have supported to live lifestyles that are on the edge, often outside of social care, the people who other often think we are doing nothing for (when in supporting them to live their lives we are doing lots). Our conversations could be vital.
  2. Contact between families and friends.  Article 8 ECHR is the right to a private and family life with a circle of good friends.  This is the heart of social work. There are lots of ways to make sure that if best interest decisions are being made by providers such as care homes about protecting people’s Article 2 right to life by restricting access to the setting, there are lots of ways to cheaply work with the provider to ensure they take action to keep families connected and prevent the well documented impact of social isolation. There are loads of modern technologies out there that can help do this – Skype, Facetime, Whatsapp are all easily accessible and we are encouraging Care Home providers to get these set up now.  As more people are taking social distancing action, self-isolating, including our own parents and grand parents, we will keep talking about how we support non personal contact using new technologies than ever before. We have our own family Whatsapp groups and we are planning to visit our family members, taking sensible precautions.  We are reviewing care and support plans over the next 2 weeks to ensure that how families are supported to stay in contact with loved ones is documented and agreed where the least restrictive option is for a setting to restrict access.
  3. Shopping and Food Banks. We have contributed to food banks through fund raising, sleep outs and on a weekly basis donated to in our weekly shop as we walk past the trolly in our local supermarket.  In our offices we keep small boxes of enough stuff to help people get home from hospital, or set up their first home, with a couple of meals of stuff in the cupboard. We help families access local food banks.  For right or wrong, food banks are part of our lives and provide essential items to people regardless of income, disability, access. This is ensuring social justice, our central mission as a profession which is encoded into the international definition of Social Work.  So it is not a surprise that this week our social work colleagues have been telling us that they have been out to see their neighbours and ask do they need any help with shopping, and giving them their personal numbers inviting neighbours to contact them if they need help with this in the next few months.  We will be talking to the people and families we support over the next few weeks about shopping. Is there something they haven’t got?  Have they the resources to be able to stockpile a fortnight worth of resources.  If someone only eats garlic bread, or ice cream or drinks Cherry fizzy pop, we have gone out to make sure that they have a supply of these in at a time when supermarket shelves are emptying faster than they can be filled by the stores. Many of the families we support won’t be able to afford this so we will be looking to see if the food banks can cope with the pressure and agitating for resources to be made available to help.
  4. Our local area has already set up facebook community action groups which we have joined so we can help support our neighbours.  We are talking to people and families we are support over the next few weeks about whether they have something similar they can connect to, and do they have a good neighbour to help them from becoming isolated.  Local community centres, Mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, parish or town councils all have positive contributions to make and social workers are pooling what we know about the communities we are part of and how we can access these resources to support people who are worried, self-isolating and may need some help.  We are asking ourselves a challenging question – social work assumes it is helpful, but we only know who we know. Most people don’t choose to invite social workers into their lives.  We are thinking about who do the corner shops know? Who does the library know? What about the bookies and the local cafe? We are making sure that they know us and feel that they have a relationship which means they would pick up the phone and ring us if they think someone needs our help over the next few months.
  5. We will be speaking to people and families who manage their own support and use a Direct Payment to arrange for Personal Assistants about their contingency plans over the next few months.  Would they and their PAs be interested in talking to other families who live near them, or whose children attend the same school, about whether they might be interested in pooling their PA support as part of planning for cover.  We will be encouraging PAs and families to keep up to date with government guidance about personal protective equipment to sign up to webinars being arranged by organisations set up to support self directed support such as this one

We are, of course, taking care of ourselves too!  We are human, we have family members we are worried about, we can’t always be as reassuring as we would like to be (we get worried too). We will be using our professional supervision, our friendship groups and our family networks to talk about the personal, about how we feel and about what is happening so that we also get the support we need if and when we need it.

Social Workers will be led by their employers and national guidance as it becomes available. We all have plans to follow and there are good reasons for this.  We aren’t a blue light service. But we will get into our scruffs, we are down into the hole with the people we serve helping give each other leg up.  We are human, not care managers.

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