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The perils of PPE and social work

The use of personal protective equipment is a complex issue and much less straightforward for social workers than the government would have us think, says senior practitioner Colin Mabbutt as he looks back at his experiences over the last year

Published by Professional Social Work Magazine - 11 January, 2021. Share your COVID-19 experiences here.

24/03/2020: Masks and glasses don’t mix! I use taxis due to disability. After a wait, "put your seat-belt on!’" the taxi driver says gruffly! "I can’t see where to plug it," I plead, struggling with the fog in my glasses - an oft recurring theme.  

30/03/2020: The sun beat down on my bald scalp. I am trying to engage children through a window and have to abandon my visit early, because I neglected to put sun cream on - now an essential form of personal protective equipment in the unseasonal March heatwave.  

03/04/2020: I can’t stop the tears falling… only from my right eye. My mask has tangled repeatedly with the arms on my glasses, and on one occasion, I bent the arm 90 degrees as I removed them. Now the lens is so close to my eyelashes it causes my eye to weep. ‘If I have COVID,’ I thought, ‘is repeatedly wiping tears and steam from my glasses as contagious as blowing my nose? (And that keeps running too!) Is mask-wearing decreasing or increasing my risk to others?’ I wonder.

10/04/2020: A momentous day. The three-year-old with the dummy in her mouth has never spoken audible words to me before, but today she is chatting away as she draws a picture for me. I can hear nothing of it at the window. Its bin day, and the noise of dustbins emptied into lorries drowns her chatter.

14/04/2020: Another hot day and a new piece of PPE. I now take up to three deckchairs on my visits, which enables me to sit outside at two metres distance from my children and parents. (I need to invest in anti-sceptic wipes to wipe them down, though!)

30/04/2020: A teenager talking to me through the upstairs window, glad of some company and conversation, invites me to ‘get down with him’ at the shops. This is encouraging. I didn’t have street cred when I was a teenager, so at 60 I’m sure I haven’t got it now! "You’ll have to lose the cap,"  he said, mocking my newest indispensable form of PPE. Wearing a cap is fine, but without a logo it is just not cool.

The teenager leaves the open window. Suddenly his three-year-old sister begins climbing on the window ledge to talk to me... unsupervised. I panic, fearing all the implications should she fall from the first floor window… whilst talking to her social worker! I shout for her to get down off the window ledge! Unused to her social worker raising his voice at her, she bursts into tears, and disappears inside to find her mummy. I am left feeling like a cad, and wondering how effective I am being in my role of safeguarding children!

15/05/2020: The heatwave has ended, and summer downpours have arrived. An umbrella replaces my cap as PPE. You have to be creative with direct work in these circumstances, so I was doing ‘word association’ with two children. I read from a prepared list and tried to write their replies, but with an umbrella, nothing to lean on, and a strong wind, this proved virtually impossible! My paper got soaked and so did I!

16/06/2020: I assess a domestic violence perpetrator on my deckchairs in a public park, but the sun has gone and the rain falls. We are sheltered beneath the huge sycamore trees - yes another essential PPE - and I am able to complete the intervention without getting wet!

16/08/2020: We may now enter properties to undertake our visits. I wear my mask and the mother does the same. It is a tricky intervention requiring me to challenge carefully her deceit in meeting a perpetrator repeatedly in breach of the safety plan. Her three-year-old repeatedly pulls off her mother’s mask, saying, "Get that off, silly!"

20/09/2020: I am at a practice forum and confess to my director that - while distancing as much as possible - when I met consecutively with a mother and her four children, in various settings to discuss the plan of adoption proposed for the youngest child, I elected not to wear a mask. The issues were too difficult to put such a barrier between us. I asked her if I was in trouble. She replied very kindly that no-one would criticise me for doing what I felt was right in such circumstances, but that she just wanted me to be safe. She urged me again to keep myself safe.

I was genuinely touched by her compassionate response, but afterwards I reflected, ‘the health advice is that the mask protects others not the wearer. Aside from the parent I mentioned earlier, no parent or foster carer, police officer or teacher, has worn a mask whilst with me, so who is protecting me?’

26/11/2020: Covid concerns are increasing, and we are issued with our new PPE. In addition to my mask, I am now expected to wear bright blue gloves, a plastic apron, and either goggles or a visor. I assume that goggles won’t work over glasses, so opt for the visor. I arrive at a foster placement and the carer launches into an account as I enter the door. I can’t see a thing! She is oblivious as I stumble about trying simultaneously to find my way through to the living room, and the safety of a seat, whilst getting to my glasses to wipe them, but it is the visor that is completely steamed up. I am momentarily blinded to all, and decide that a visor without windscreen wipers is just not practical! I was so preoccupied, I have no idea what the foster carer was talking about.

The family I am visiting are filled with mirth as they survey me in my protective gear. Well at least it has diffused the anger, but being the object of ridicule does nothing for the authority I am trying to carry!

So, this it. This was the crazy world of a 2020 social worker. My PPE includes soap and water, anti-septic hand-wash, an apron, gloves, mask, visor, sun-cream, cap, deckchairs, umbrella, and a sycamore tree... Thankfully snorkel and flippers are optional!


Do you have experiences, thoughts or feelings of social work during the COVID-19 pandemic you would like to share with Professional Social Work magazine? Click here to find out how

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.