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Government criticised for lack of social work representation on SAGE

Emergency advisory group missing our knowledge and understanding of communities and human behaviour, says profession

Professional Social Work magazine - 8 October, 2020

The government has been urged to include social workers on its SAGE team informing decisions during the pandemic.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies contains almost 100 advisers including experts from health, epidemiology, criminology, psychology, statisticians environmental and behavioural scientists but no social workers.

With the impacts of Covid increasingly seen to be as much social as health pandemic, the omission was criticised by those in the social work profession.

BASW chief executive Dr Ruth Allen said: “SAGE would be strengthened enormously by input from social work and it is shocking we have none.

“Social workers bring specific expertise in reducing social and health risks, particularly in complex situations such as harm within families, in institutions like care homes, and for people with multiple support needs. We bring legal, practice and ethical expertise. Crucially, we understand communities and local systems of support.”

Amid localised lockdowns now being used to contain the virus, the lack of social work input is particularly short-sighted, said Dr Allen.

“Social workers could really help to bring a much-needed shift in focus from centralised to local and devolved action, motivating the social solidarity and community support that is so important to get us through.”

Lena Dominelli, a world-renowned social work academic specialising in disaster work who has researched the role of the profession in the current pandemic, added: “I would like to know why SAGE does not include any social workers who know how people behave in everyday life.

“They have done the tokenistic thing regarding social sciences and included a couple of behavioural scientists.

“Social workers have the people skills necessary to get into the details of daily life, not by making assumptions about people’s behaviour, but investigating how they really behave.

“Social workers  know the complexities of human behaviour. They also understand people’s emotional needs and their connections with each other, their strengths and resilience alongside their weaknesses."

SAGE provides “scientific and technical advice” to support ministerial decisions during emergencies. The current group has played a high-profile role during the Covid-19 crisis with co-chairs Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance regularly appearing alongside the prime minister at press briefings.

One of its eight sub-groups specifically focuses on population behaviour. Among the 40 members are a police constable, several psychologists, an equalities lawyer and a paediatrician.

Majella Greene, a social worker specialising in behaviour change who supported people affected by London’s Grenfell fire tragedy, said: “I am shocked we are not represented.

“Without doubt SAGE should have social work representation on it, especially given the nature of the pandemic’s implications – people being socially isolated and losing their jobs.

“In order to get people to comply to the guidelines it is as much about ensuring they feel safe and protected and are not isolated. As social workers we create connections.

“SAGE should include social workers who understand the complexities and cross-cultural influences on people.”

A government spokesperson said: “The membership of SAGE depends on the nature of the emergency but it typically includes leading experts from within government and leading specialists from the fields of academia and industry.

“During this pandemic SAGE has drawn on expertise from within government and leading specialists from the fields of healthcare and academia, as well as expert groups.”

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.