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Blog by John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, on the launch of SWU's 6 Point Action Plan

Recent findings from the Social Workers Union members’ survey highlights significant issues

Update by John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union

  • UK “not ready for avalanche of social work referrals” and sector risks losing thousands due to COVID-19 response
  • Testimonies from over 350 social workers highlight dire working conditions
  • Half have put their own health at risk and many feel threatened with disciplinary measures for raising safety concerns

The UK’s social work system faces collapse as a third of social workers look to leave the profession, according to data collated by the Social Workers Union.

The Union says the UK faces an avalanche of referrals as lockdown eases but that government and employers have neglected social workers’ concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic and failed to safeguard their physical and mental health.

It is calling on government and social work employers to take both immediate short-term steps such as more availability of mental health support, guaranteed PPE, a social work recruitment drive and a pledge not re- introduce austerity measures.

This should be coupled with a long-term approach to introduce measures set out in a “working conditions toolkit”, developed by the Union, Bath Spa University and the British Association of Social Workers.

Findings from the survey show that half of social workers have put their own health at risk as a result of working during the pandemic. And while 21 social workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19, one in ten (11%) have felt threatened with disciplinary measures for raising safety concerns. A third of those surveyed are now considering alternative careers. This has led SWU to launch their  6 Point Action Plan.

Further analysis shows:

  • Half (51%) say risk assessments have been poor, including a quarter (23%) who believe measures have been wholly insufficient
  • The majority (54%) have been provided with inadequate PPE resulting in social workers either having to spend their own money on PPE or providing home-made masks.
  • Almost a third (29%) say they have been unable to reach the most vulnerable during the pandemic


Over 60% of social workers say their mental health has been affected negatively by working through COVID-19, with 1 in 20 suffering a total collapse. Hundreds of the respondents chose to provide the Social Workers Union with written accounts of their situation:

“We had no team meetings, all direction was by email. We were left alone by our manager completely for 10 weeks. I felt isolated and I was told not to email with concerns as managers were too busy”.

“Stress from being overwhelmed has been dismissed by senior management”.

“I’m agency worker and feel that I’m a disposable asset during lockdown used to shield full time social workers who are working from home. Not had supervision since starting job in beginning of March Pre-COVID-19”

“I Feel completely overwhelmed at times… my mental health is on alert at all times”

“I am stuck. Don’t know which way to turn”.

“I’m agency worker and feel that I’m a disposable asset during lockdown used to shield full time social workers who are working from home.”


John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union commented:

“The situation is dire and the social work system is on the precipice of collapse.

“Our members are considering leaving the profession en-mass if their concerns aren’t addressed. We have long argued that working conditions for social workers need to be drastically improved and sadly COVID-19 has acerbated the problems.

“Social workers have put their health on the line safeguarding the public, but little has been done to safeguard them.”


Carol Reid, National Organiser for the Union added:

“Some of the stories we’ve heard from our Members are truly shocking and very concerning. We want urgent action now from the Government and employers to provide better working conditions for social workers.

“It’s clear from our research that the social work system is not ready for the avalanche of social work referrals which our members expect to happen as lockdown eases.

Doug Nicholls, General Secretary from the General Federation of Trade Unions, which represents specialist trade unions, commented:

“The study from the Social Workers Union tells a tragic tale which government and employers such as local authorities must listen to’.

“As we move onto the recovery phase of the pandemic, protecting and improving the working conditions of key workers across the country is vital work being undertaken by trade unions across all sectors.”

Emma Lewell-Buck, MP stated that:

‘Social workers are always forgotten when it comes to key / frontline workers. They have felt threatened to raise safety concerns, forced to make and buy their own PPE and some have tragically lost their lives. This should cause the Government alarm. Already the profession was under immense pressure hit hard by years of austerity and various Government ministers who have unhelpfully sought to control and aggressively privatise a profession they know little of and understand less. If the Government doesn’t take urgent action and social workers disappear from our communities the impact will be felt not just by those who need their help but all of us’.




[1] 363 social workers completed the survey issued by the Social Workers Union to its members between 21-28 June 2020.

[2] 67% of respondents to the survey say they expect a massive increase in referrals to social services as lockdown continues to ease with an additional 27% expecting a slight increase.

[3] The full action plan is on the SWU website.