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More than 10% of social work workforce off due to COVID in one in 10 authorities

Around 1 in 10 of local authorities reported over 10% of their social workers unable to work due to COVID-19 in January 2022, the Department for Education has reported.

Between October to December 2021 there were no local authorities reporting over 10% of their social workers out of action, although at its peak, there were 13% of local authorities reporting more than 10% of social workers off due to COVID in May 2020.

The report also revealed that almost a quarter of local authorities (23%) reported over 10% of their residential care staff unable to work due to COVID-19, up from 4% in November and December 2021, and compared to a peak of 27% in June 2020.

“In December we asked local authorities to tell us about the main challenges they will face in the next three months. Workforce issues were mentioned by some local authorities that provided a response. The potential impact of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) Omicron variant on workforce availability was noted along with concerns about ongoing impacts on staff wellbeing. For example, one local authority told us “the drawn-out nature of the pandemic and its effect on the working environment may well impact on social work staff resilience in the coming months,” said the DfE report.

When the DfE asked local authorities about any workforce pressures in January 2022, they reported increasing staff absences. For one local authority, while they had under 10% off due to COVID, when that was combined with other sickness and absences, it increased to 21%.

Some local authorities described the impacts of the staff absences in their area. For example, one local authority said: “Given the intensity of the pandemic where staff need to cover gaps for colleagues who are isolating or sick, adapting to new online working and having less time in the office, and some with caring responsibilities, some experiencing loss, this has had an unavoidable impact on their professional lives.”

Another local authority reported that staff absences due to COVID-19 has placed pressure on some areas and, as a result, they were prioritising statutory requirements. Children's services were meeting twice weekly to review staffing and any implications and maintain a live record of absence with agreed contingency plans. While agency staff were being utilised , they were also trying to build capacity within children's homes as a contingency to staff sickness and they were maintaining some vacancies within the homes to allow flexibilities in staff allocation or placements needed in an emergency.

The numbers of referrals have fluctuated since the first lockdown in March 2020. In September 2021, the number of referrals were around the same as usual for that time of year, although referrals from schools were 27% higher. The number of referrals then fell to 8% lower in October, 6% lower in November, and 9% lower in December 2021.

Referrals from schools fluctuated compared to usual levels between September and November 2021, from 27% higher in September to 7% lower in late November. Referrals from the police remained close to or above usual levels, at 8% higher in September and 1% lower than usual in late November.

The total number of referrals to children’s social care services reported in each wave of the survey since it began in May 2020 was 303,800, around 10% lower than an average of the same weeks during 2017-20. It is estimated that there have been around 82,000 fewer referrals since May 2020 compared to 2017-20 and this estimate takes into account local authorities that did not respond and weeks not covered by the survey.

Local authorities predict an increase in the volume of referrals as a result of the emergence of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) Omicron variant and recent child death cases that have been reported in the media such as the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson .

One local authority said: “In light of Arthur's death, we anticipate an increase in both referrals and system anxiety/tension as a consequence...”

A handful of local authorities indicated that they were seeing more children leaving care because of court backlogs clearing. At the same time however, some local authorities told the DfE that their care numbers were increasing. Continued court delays and an increase in unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) were the main reasons provided.

A small but significant number of local authorities told the DfE about placement sufficiency challenges within their area.

One said: “Placement challenges remain with a lack of availability for more challenging children (again, linked to children with more complex and / or Mental Health issues)…”

While another reported: “Currently there is a lack of availability of suitable residential placements for our children in care and we are currently reviewing our own residential offer.”

Vulnerable Children and Young People Survey Summary of returns: September 2021 to January 2022

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