Frontline social workers in the UK have been given no personal protective equipment (PPE) or hand sanitiser, but are still expected to make home visits to vulnerable and elderly clients amid the coronavirus pandemic, HuffPost UK can reveal.
What’s more, they are having to devise their own policies on how to keep their clients safe during the pandemic in the absence of any clear guidance from the government.
Dorothy, a frontline social worker for a local authority in the midlands with children and families, says the government is not telling the councils that employ the staff what they should be doing. That means no one, down to the workers on the ground, knows either.
She said: “As a service, the same as the other emergency services, we are there for the families if they need us, but we have to find a safe way of doing it without PPE or anything in place. It makes it very difficult.”
Dorothy says she has been left to write a Covid-19 contingency plan for every family, meaning low-risk people can be contacted by WhatsApp if necessary while higher-risk people who need more urgent support can still continue getting home visits.
But if there is a concern about domestic abuse in the household, such as a violent parent or partner, checking in digitally will not suffice.
“How do we know if we are not able to see?” she said.
“If those risks are that high and we have to have oversight for children, then we are really wanting to do those visits.
“We have to be mindful that families have a right not to want us in their home if they need to self-isolate.
“It’s a very tricky one. We are trying to carefully balance the need to provide the safety and the service for the children, without leaving them at risk of harm, but also not putting them at risk of exposing them to any bacteria that we might not be aware we are bringing into their home.”
Though plans are changing on a daily basis, at present Dorothy’s department are keeping home visits to a minimum where possible, holding meetings over the phone where necessary.
But she added: “Every day I’ve gone into work and things have got tighter and tighter and tighter so I wouldn’t be surprised if tomorrow I get an email telling me something different.”
Another manager of social care services at a large UK council told HuffPost UK that Public Health England had issued advice on Friday saying carers could continue to help vulnerable people, so long as they wear PPE.
“The problem is we haven’t got any yet,” he said, adding the same is true for councils and private companies that have been outsourced care work.
“Care workers are washing people’s faces, in the nitty gritty. If you can’t shower for yourself, carers have got to get pretty close to you to do that for you.
“There’s a lot of people with dementia too: they’ve not going to tell you they’ve got a high fever and a cough. A lot of them don’t even know what their name is.
“There will be people who could be symptomatic but very unwell anyway, and care workers who can’t wear PPE because they haven’t got it.”
He fears the lack of testing means that there many people who need care could be infecting their carers, and vice-versa
“These are care workers who get paid £10 an hour. Why would they take that risk? Eventually carers are going to say they’re not doing it. Managers of agencies I speak to are absorbing a huge amount of anxiety from their care workers.
“Because carers struggle to have a voice to speak out, we’re putting them at risk and they could spread it in the community. It correlates with how the care industry has been treated for years. It’s a forgotten industry.”
He believes there’s also a more general problem about the vagueness of the UK government’s advice.
“They’re shutting bars and restaurants around the world for people who are asymptomatic, but here we’re sending carers to look after people who are very unwell generally – and with a significant number of people with undiagnosed coronavirus,” he said.
At time of publishing, the Department for Health and Social Care had not responded to requests for comment on the matter.
The British Association of Social Workers told HuffPost UK it is raising the concerns of frontline social workers with the government in daily meetings. A spokesperson added: “We have launched a survey of our members to see what other challenges and issues the workforce are facing.”