Four ways the Covid-19 crisis will transform UK social work

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Coronavirus has thrown up tough challenges for the profession, but there is also the chance for positive change

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a whole new range of challenges for social workers. They are juggling personal safety worries with the effects of lack of resources and workforce shortages, all while attempting to safeguard vulnerable children and adults, observe social distancing and protect public health.

Modern social work – and the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) – celebrates its 50th birthday this month, yet what would have been a time to take stock of our history with an eye on the next 50 years has been turned on its head.

Our members have been very vocal on the challenges they are facing. More than 2,000 have so far contributed to our Covid-19 survey, which continues to inform our actions and conversations with the government.

It is also acting as a valuable diary of social work’s achievements in the crisis so far.

Social workers have had to adapt at pace, yet paradoxically it may make positive change more likely.

With members’ voices ringing in my ears, and in a spirit of realistic optimism, here are the ways social work will change in the next few years:

Public support for social workers will grow

Referrals to social services for children, adults and famlilies will surge once lockdown eases, and “hidden harms” and stored up need are revealed. More than 85% of respondents in our survey expect this to start impacting in September, when children go back to school.

But, through this, social workers’ vital roles in protecting and empowering people at risk – and whether these have been hampered – will become visible to governments. Public awareness and support for social workers and their concerns will grow.

It will be impossible to ignore the huge gaps in funding – and moves to invest in the centralised NHS, rather than local social care yet again, will be resisted by local authorities.

Mental health practice and social work will come closer together

Covid-19 is as much a psychosocial crisis as a health energency. The national response must not be left to a clinical model. After disasters, recovery often starts with finding ways of coping, identifying strengths in individuals and social networks, building a sense of community, having practical needs met, rights upheld and fought for, and hoping for a compassionate future. This is social work.

Specialist mental health social work will grow and become more influential. More social workers will develop and use mental health skills.

Social work will adapt to a new normal

Change means we can be clearer about what we value and what we are missing. Members repeatedly tell us in our survey that they miss contact and camaraderie from colleagues – whether formal support or coffee and chats.

While video calls have kept us in contact with people who use services and colleagues, we are missing the ability to meet people we work with, to see them and be able to use non-verbal, visual clues and physical information. Digital developments can’t fully replace face to face contact.

Working conditions will improve

Support for social workers’ wellbeing will improve across many organisations. Self-care resources, flexible working, personalised risk assessments, provision to meet with peers, relevant learning and reflective supervision are all in the social worker’s handbook, but our survey shows implementation is patchy across the country.

The changes must happen if employers are to retain and recruit staff, or prevent absences and industrial action. Resilient and responsive organisations – including BASW – will rise to the challenge of supporting wellbeing better and creatively.

When public health strategy and national governmental decisions are scrutinised, the role of social workers in recovery and future emergency and public health planning will be recognised. There can be no effective public health strategy without social health, and social workers are crucial to the health of the nation.

Social workers have a vital role to play in supporting and protecting individuals, families and communities traumatised by coronavirus. They are national treasures of compassionate, practical, justice-driven people who can do so much to get the whole country through this time.

Austerity in public services cannot be an option post-Covid if we are to have a chance of sustaining a decent society. There must be urgent and major investment within and beyond local authorities, if social work is to play its fullest, necessary leading part in recovery in every community of the UK.

BASW will be fighting every step of the way for social workers and the public who need their support.

  • Ruth Allen is chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers

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