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Blog: 'Why testing is just as important as vaccines in social work'

What has happened to standardised Covid-19 Testing for social workers in England? BASW's Liz Howard asks the question and urges social workers to do the same...

By Liz Howard, BASW England Professional Officer

The announcement of a vaccine was a game-changing moment, no doubt. And the identification of frontline social workers who provide care to vulnerable people as a high priority for vaccination was most welcome news.

‘Hooray!’ I thought. Now this feels like something to celebrate, the vaccine is here and at long last recognition of our role and contribution, and parity with other professionals.

But let us pause here for a moment. The vaccine will not change our situation overnight and despite remarkable progress, vaccines alone do not stop pandemics, our way of life has changed forever.

Whilst we hear daily reports of social workers up and down the country being offered and receiving the vaccine not everyone will receive the vaccine at once, nor choose to have the vaccine. So for the coming months, what does this mean for social workers in frontline practice?

Safe Access

Taking a step back, the issues we faced before about safe access when visiting people in their own homes, hospital, care homes, supported living or assessment and treatment units are still there and as are important now as they were in the months, following the initial and second lockdown in 2020.

The latest government information states that 1 in 3 people who have the virus have no symptoms, so anyone of us could be spreading it without knowing.

The danger with the vaccine is that we feel a false sense of security which could lead to the abandonment of less adherence to public health measures and guidance such as social distancing, the use of PPE and infection control measures.  

On 2 December, visitor testing began as an initial pilot in care homes.

Since then, BASW England through the Test Access Rights campaign has received mixed reports of how this is working in practice ranging from family visits being supported with access to regular testing of a nominated visitor to continued blanket bans on any visiting at all, and no access to testing and feedback from one family member that when they enquired about testing this was refused.

Learning Disability England in December 2020 commented that “the issue about being able to visit loved ones – or to have visitors and get out and about to see friends and family has become very complicated for all of those trying to make this happen.”

Unclear communication

National variation of access to testing has led to targeted campaign activity from organisations concerned about the abuse of human rights and the impact of additional restrictions in relation to family relationships, health and wellbeing of people with learning disabilities and/or autistic people.

Revised care home visiting guidance issued on 12 December 2021 in response to the national lockdown referred to visitor testing but only in relation to situations involving end of life care and again the onus was back on individual care providers to respond to this.

Fast forward slightly three days later and the government announce details of additional money through the Adult Social Care Rapid Testing Fund to support the increase of lateral flow device testing of staff in care homes. Reference to visitors is made including “visiting professionals” and “adult social care providers” although no explicit reference to social workers.

A description of “visiting professional” is provided in earlier guidance issued on 15 December 2020, which suggests social workers could be included: “A visiting professional is defined as anyone visiting the care home in a professional capacity” the onus here though is on the provider to carry out the test rather than the social worker's employer.

There are also different arrangements for access to testing for Extra Care and Supported Living settings. All of the guidance issued excludes settings where people are not receiving personal care. This raises questions about unregulated settings that fall outside of the scope of the CQC.

In the Huffington Post, Test and Trace chief Dido Harding is quoted as saying that “rapid testing in workplaces was likely to remain in place over the medium to long term…As the vaccine program rolls out, we will want to maintain things like regular asymptomatic testing and tracing as one of the last non-pharmaceutical interventions that we will want to release.”

Interesting given the varied picture across the country that BASW members, non-members and family carers are experiencing in terms of access to testing. One family member said: "The home my mum is in just stop visits when there is a lockdown, before that it was via a Perspex screened room but this does work ok."

While a member said: "No testing is being offered to us, we are expected to work from home and use PPE on very rare, only essential visits."

A recent survey undertaken by BASW ‘Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings’ showed a variable result from social workers who asked for covid tests from their employer and received one. Around one third have said yes they’ve got one but around the same number have said they haven’t.

Voices from the frontline

A recent update from two social workers indicates that in their areas of social work things are changing. A social worker in a hospital setting said: “I work for an NHS Trust. The Social work team based in the hospital have been issued with lateral flow tests since December 2020 and use these x2 per week prior to coming on site when working within a hospital setting."

A social worker in the community said: "The authority that I work in have identified a number of Covid test centres in different locations for lateral Covid flow tests for front line staff including social workers that do not have any Covid symptoms.”

“Social workers need to be tested on the day of any essential home/ care home visits to make sure that they test negative before any visits and then need to take a follow up lateral flow test after any visits."

What do we need going forward? 

BASW is calling for consistency and access to regular testing. Blanket restrictions remain in place, despite the wealth of government guidance reinforcing the need for a personalised response which upholds human rights.  

As we’ve seen the picture around testing and safe access varies nationally, regionally and locally.

The inconsistency in approach means that loved ones remain apart, and closed cultures prevail.

BASW is calling for greater consistency across the country, in order for nominated family members to be given access to regular testing - and for social workers to be tested regularly to enable, along with other measures, safe access to health and care home settings.

#TestAccessRights

Join our campaign. Call for social workers to be tested regularly to allow safe access to promote rights, strengths and wellbeing of people, families and communities in health and care settings. Here are some ways you can get involved:

Watch and share our campaign video: 

 

Watch and share our campaign video

Lobby your MP through our Tweet your MP campaign using the #TestAccesRights which calls on the government to re-look at its policies and consider the emotional and psychological impact on people and families being kept apart from loved ones for extraordinary periods of time: tweet your local MP