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Being ethical sometimes means 'bending or breaking the rules'

Practising during Covid-19 showed need to challenge unfair procedures and guidance

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 28 January, 2022

The pandemic has shown that professional ethical judgement, undermined by “decades of managerialism and procedure-driven practice”, should be restored to social work, new research claims.

The paper - by BASW and academics at Durham University, published in the British Journal of Social Work - set out to analyse the ethical challenges confronting UK social workers during Covid-19.

It found some practitioners responded to the pandemic with “ethical creativity”, including “bending or breaking institutional rules”.

The authors added: “There is a long tradition of resistance in social work and during Covid-19 restrictions many social workers pushed back against new laws, procedures and guidance they judged unfair or damaging and implemented alternative solutions.”

The authors identified four key responses in the sample of 41 social workers in the qualitative data study:

  • Ethical confusion—over the right action, or how to work out what was right.
  • Ethical distress— knowing what would be the right course of action, but being unable to carry it out due to institutional or other constraints.
  • Ethical creativity— working out what would be right in new circumstances and being flexible and imaginative in carrying it out.
  • Ethical learning—reflecting on learning from working during the pandemic

Social workers were asked to describe some of the ethical challenges they faced, and to outline particular situations experienced in often challenging work conditions, with a breakdown in normal practice and procedures.


Respondents said they faced frequent confusion, with one saying, about government guidance: ‘It says we aren’t to conduct home visits except in exceptional circumstances, but it doesn’t say what that is, so I had to rely on my professional judgement.’

Another reflected: “… the first week or so immediately prior to the lockdown was pretty chaotic … by lunchtime I was contradicting the advice I’d been giving in the morning. And people were just ignoring it anyway … making up their own minds about what they needed to do.”

Ethical distress was felt by many social workers. A manager in an acute setting where patients with Covid were discharged to care homes said: “I have lost sleep over the decision-making I am seeing around me and the distress this is causing frontline workers, my managers, families and carers.”

Respondents frequently had to weigh up individual rights and needs against public health risks. One respondent working in child protection - faced with giving bad news remotely - said: “I decided to visit these children and speak to them in the garden from a safe distance. This felt a bit strange but I was satisfied that it was the right thing to have done.”

In reflecting on the ethical learning to emerge from the pandemic, one senior adoption social worker wrote: “I have to say that it is not until I have written this all down that I have realised how ethically fraught this situation was. It will be a good case to look at with students in the future when discussing ethical dilemmas.”

Slow ethics

The authors placed an emphasis on the importance of slow ethics: “... slowing down the pace of decisions and actions, taking time to reflect upon the range of possibilities and their practical and ethical implications.”

They concluded: “The crisis caused by the pandemic has foregrounded the ethical issues that matter to social workers. This is evident in the extra effort, imagination and flexibility in many of their accounts. These have not been about ‘following the ethics’, but rather using and trusting their own professional judgements and doing ‘ethics work’.

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