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Take care of the frontline workers so they can support and care for others

Blog by Maris Stratulis, National Director, BASW England

The escalation and scale of the spread of COVID-19 is directly impacting upon every frontline worker. Social workers and social care staff work in the community, residential services, hospitals, hospices, third sector organisations and more.

As well as being the professional each member of the workforce has a personal life. Many are primary carers, parents with small children, caring for children with different needs, for elderly parents and vulnerable adults in their extended family. They will be mums, dads, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, godparents, grandparents, daughters and sons. They will be people who volunteer within their community – all are the unsung heroines and heroes of the frontline.

Many households (including my own) have members working in direct frontline services including social care, the NHS, residential settings, ambulance services, education, the police. There is no competition and hierarchy - they will all face personal ethical dilemmas. Every day it is getting tougher on the frontline and as one practitioner recently said to me: “My stomach is knotted waiting for what is to come”.

It is okay to be scared, anxious, feeling guilty and constantly feeling compromised about putting the safety and wellbeing of the people you work with alongside loved ones in your personal life. We need to create safe spaces for practitioners to share these feelings without judgment, both within and outside of the workplace.

We also need to prepare for increasingly difficult conversations with the people we care for and those we work with and to begin to voice out loud how to prepare (if that is possible) for the unthinkable.

We may face large scale loss, grief and providing support to those who have not been able to be with their loved ones or say goodbye at the end of life, every death to COVID-19 is a death too many. Employers also need to explore enhanced support and wellbeing to staff, including bereavement counselling.

Doctors, social workers and many others have died from COVID-19 and sadly it is very likely that more frontline staff will die as a direct result of serving citizens with dedication, humanity and commitment, often without access to testing and appropriate protective personal equipment(PPE).

As ever, social workers are being flexible, creative and dynamic, prioritising the most vulnerable and endeavouring to follow government and local guidance. But in many instances, they are without PPE nor adequate training about the use and safe storage and disposal of PPE. They are certainly not being tested for COVID-19 at present.

The culture of blaming the public is already part of the narrative - if social distancing had been adhered to so many lives would not already been lost. The situation is far more complex than that. There are too many unknowns about COVID-19 and there are different international responses to testing, issuing of PPE, political, scientific and health approaches.

The role of social workers in this pandemic is ever changing. They face the daily demands and challenges of managing children and adult safeguarding and wellbeing, ensuring human rights and ethical decision-making is at the core of practice and being the ever-constant in unprecedent times. The Coronavirus Act 2020 will affect social care and health duties and use of resources throughout this pandemic and possibly beyond.

Social workers and social care colleagues are playing and will continue to play an integral role in responding to the COVID -19 pandemic. Social workers' skills, knowledge and expertise are essential requisites in the context of this global emergency.

We have heard from many members who are facilitating and co-ordinating an integrated strategic and operational emergency service to support the most disadvantaged, supporting individuals, families and communities to cope with difficult and traumatic circumstances. Social workers will be critical in providing ongoing immediate support and relief as well as longer term recovery and re-construction.

However, in order to do this, the government must prioritise the safety and wellbeing of social workers, social care colleagues and other frontline workers. Staff are the premium of any organisation and they need to be well to support the communities they serve in these extremely challenging times.

Social workers and social care workers should be given the opportunity to be tested for COVID19, there should be testing in the community and staff who need access to PPE must be given these resources as a minimum right. We must take care of the frontline workers so they can care for others.

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