Frontline social workers who continue to make house visits to vulnerable clients amid the coronavirus pandemic may not receive protective masks until next Wednesday.
The push to equip all social care providers with fluid repellent masks, gloves and hand sanitiser began midweek but is expected to take up to another week to be complete.
In the meantime, social workers who have been advised by the government to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when visiting clients have had to make difficult decisions as to whether to continue in-person visits, which could potentially put both parties at risk, postpone, or conduct the visit online.
The delay in getting PPE equipment to social workers comes even though they have been deemed “essential” to the Covid-19 response.
The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has been conducting an online survey for its members since the coronavirus outbreak. Amid the 1000+ respondents so far, it has identified strong concerns about the health and safety of social workers and the struggle to access PPE and hand sanitiser.
Particular concerns were registered among social workers with underlying conditions, or those who care for someone with an underlying condition. They feel that without PPE they are putting themselves and service users at unmanaged risk, especially now they have been deemed a priority group for protective supplies alongside NHS staff.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We will continue to give our NHS and the social care sector everything they need to tackle this outbreak and have central stockpiles of a range of medical products, including personal protective equipment.
“We are working closely with industry, the NHS, social care providers and others in the supply chain to ensure these medical products are delivered to the frontline, helping minimise any risks to patients and staff.”
A dedicated government helpline has been set up for care providers who have immediate concerns over their supply of PPE, but the department could not say what workers who do not yet have equipment should do in the meantime.
Chair of BASW Gerry Nosowska told HuffPost UK: ”We know social workers across the UK are making extremely difficult decisions about how to protect people at risk when it may not be safe to see them. Over a thousand social workers across have told us this in our live survey and their voices span across children and families, adults and mental health sectors.
“So it’s right that it has been recognised that social workers need PPE – something we and our partners have been pushing for in meetings with the government.
“There needs to be no further delay in this and there needs to be enough PPE for all social workers to do their essential work.
“We will keep advocating for the equipment and guidance social workers need to do their jobs. We are proud of our colleagues who are offering vital support to our communities and we need to keep them safe.”
Dorothy, who works for children and family services in a local authority in the Midlands, says her department is having to devise its own contingency plans in extraordinary circumstances and that some clients are so vulnerable that visits simply cannot be missed.
She said: “As a service, the same as the other emergency services, we are there for the families if they need us, but we have to find a safe way of doing it without PPE or anything in place. It makes it very difficult.”
She added that workers are having to risk assess at the most basic levels when they determine whether visits are possible.
“What’s happening at the moment is I am ringing the families to say: ‘We’re due to come out and see Fred, I’m telling you I’m feeling fit and healthy, I’m not displaying any symptoms, nobody that I live with is,’ so they know that I’m not a high risk.
“I then ask them if they have anyone in their family or the household or even the wider family that might be in regular contact with who may be at risk – for example, pregnant, recently suffered from cancer, or anything that puts them in a risk bracket respiratory-wise.
“Then they might say: ‘To be honest, Uncle Johnny lives in this house and he’s asthmatic, I’m really concerned, so we’re self-isolating.’”
BASW chief exec Dr Ruth Allen said: “Governments across the UK have been focused on healthcare. They now need to show equal commitment to social care and social workers. This is essential if social workers and social care colleagues are to work with health and other colleagues with the intensity needed to meet the challenges of Covid-19.
“Social workers must be supported to safeguard people at particular risk of harm, isolation and neglect during this period and to protect rights and ethical practice in this emergency and for the long term.”