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Agency workers being used as 'human shields'

Social Workers Union highlights unacceptable treatment of staff by some employers during coronavirus

Social Workers Union, coronavirus, employers, social workers
John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union

Some employers are treating staff “astonishingly badly” during the coronavirus crisis the Social Workers Union warned.

Concerns raised by members contacting the union include employers using agency staff as “human shields” for high risk visits to protect their own employees.

One worker reported being told they might have to stay in a bed and breakfast to care for a looked after child while another believed they were being discriminated against for having to self-isolate.

Many workers highlighted being told to undertake duties that they are not trained or equipped to carry out.

Lien Watts, head of advice and representation services, said: “There are places behaving astonishingly badly. Social workers are being asked to take on personal care of service users including administering medicine and handling.

“We are not trained to do that but if they refuse they are fearful of what impact it will have on their employment, particularly if other colleagues are agreeing to do it.”

The union said it was receiving many calls from social workers concerned about their safety.

Advice and representation officer Lyse Hurd said: “Social workers are being forced to meet face-to-face without personal protective equipment, including where there may be a risk of a person having COVID-19,” she said.

“We have a case of someone who is potentially being discriminated against because they had to self-isolate for two weeks.

“Another was told they would have to stay in a B&B with a child if a foster carer became ill. We have had at least one occasion where someone called concerned that agency staff were being used as human shields – being told we are not going to send our own staff out on visits because we don’t want to put them at risk.”

Hurd said workers were being told to provide personal care for service users without being given protective equipment to do so. 

“There is some very worrying stuff going on out there right now,” she said. “We also worry about the mental health of our social work colleagues based on some of the calls we are getting for all sorts of reasons.”

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said: “Employers have a duty of care to their staff and this applies now more than ever. The best employers are putting the safety and wellbeing of their social workers first.

“Unfortunately this is not happening everywhere and we are hearing some extremely worrying reports from practitioners.

“SWU will continue to call out unacceptable behaviour from employers and we will work with them to ensure good practice.”

BASW is lobbying government to ensure social workers are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) and has written an open letter to the UK's director of public health calling for specific guidance on its use for practitioners.

It follows more than 1,000 responses to a survey on social work during coronavirus launched by BASW in which personal safety emerged as a key issue.

The survey revealed how a lack of PPE provision by employers was leaving many to resort to buying their own. One worker reported driving around with a bowl of water in the boot of their car during home visits.  

If you have employment concerns you can contact SWU via an online contact from on the BASW website or by calling 0121 622 8413.                                                     

See SWU's Health and Safety during COVID-19 position statement here

 Some other concerns highlighted by SWU members:

We have still not been tested nor have we any PPE as yet.  We work as an integrated team with the NHS so I’m hoping we'll receive PPE some time soon - if they continue to be lapse I will continue to work from home.

We’ve been having to ask if team meetings will go ahead virtually, with no reply.  Guidance is minimal.

 I asked two weeks ago if we could get hand sanitizers for visits, particularly if we were using public transport, and I am yet to get a reply - we haven’t been issued with anything.  We were told if we come into contact with someone showing symptoms we are to "use our initiative".

I’ve mainly relied on the council's advice to staff.  Now I know that they are cutting our jobs at this time I have no motivation left.

I was experiencing really poor practices and wasn’t getting support, it was unbearable. So I resigned. Now I’m in limbo but will try to look for something part-time. I really want to help during this terrible time, hopefully something will turn up.

We desperately need guidance on what to do as we are sharing pool cars and hot desking with others. Regardless, we continue to monitor all at risk clients and this is working really well as we are all in it together.

‘Hotdesking’ in cramped office, dirty keyboards/mouse/desks, all never cleaned, office was filthy (this is NHS!!), lucky if you find a computer to complete your assessments/notes. I regularly worked lots unpaid hours over my contracted hours due to having no laptop and having to complete on system before I left work. Kept asking for months for a laptop which was promised but never arrived. When I mentioned risk of spreading germs their response was ‘hotdesking is policy’.

I can’t imagine not having the reassurance of the union right now as this is my safety net with management.