Omicron cases causing councils to report more than 10 per cent social worker absences

Around 1 in 10 local authorities reported absence rates of over tenth of their social workers due to COVID-19 in January 2022.

01/02/22

Omicron cases causing councils to report more than 10 per cent social worker absences

The pandemic is having an increasing impact on children’s services, according to the latest survey by the Department for Education.

It shows that higher levels of infection due to the Omicron strain of Covid have led to a rapid increase in staff absences.

“Around 1 in 10 (11%) of local authorities reported over 10% of their social workers unable to work due to coronavirus (COVID19) in January 2022,” the report said, adding “This increased from zero local authorities between October – December 2021.”

Children’s residential services were especially vulnerable: “Almost a quarter of local authorities (23%) reported over 10% of their residential care staff unable to work due to coronavirus in January 2022. This increased from 4% in November – December 2021…some local authorities have small residential care workforces and therefore a small change in the number of staff available may result in a large change in the proportion unavailable.”

The survey said that between September 2021 and December 2022, the total numbers of looked-after children, and children with child protection plans had remained ‘relatively stable’.

The report says that ‘a large proportion’ of looked after children, children on a child protection plan, and other children in need had had contact with a social worker within the last four weeks. The figures for these groups were 63%, 93% and 58% respectively in the January 2022 data collection.

Some local authorities told the Department of Education that they were now revising their visiting procedures because of the rise of Omicron, but ‘where possible’ were maintaining face-to-face visiting.

“In December 2021, some local authorities told us in the open text question that they are putting in place plans to make sure that contact with children is prioritised in response to the emergence of the new coronavirus Omicron variant,” the report says.

“This is consistent with the actions reported by local authorities during previous periods of rises in coronavirus cases or tighter restrictions.

“Prior to December, in previous survey waves, as the coronavirus restrictions were lifted local authorities reported that they had returned to business as usual and children were contacted within statutory timescales.

“The frequency of visits should be determined on a case by case basis; therefore it is not expected that all children should be contacted every four weeks.”

However, Steve Crocker, Vice-President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said: “These latest survey findings illustrate the continued impact of the pandemic on children and children’s services. Whilst the number of children entering care has dropped, the overall number of children looked after remains higher than comparable pre-pandemic periods, with some areas still experiencing significant delays in the courts, most notably in discharging care orders, and higher than usual arrivals of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in the winter months.

“Many local authorities are investing in practices to work closely with families to help them stay together where it is safe to do so. By working collaboratively and adopting relational approaches, we have seen many positive examples where children have been able to remain with their family. For example, edge of care teams can work intensively with a family prior to entering care proceedings in order to provide them with the right support to overcome challenges and reduce risk. It is important that we work to keep families together where that is right for children, however, we need greater national investment in these vital services.

“ADCS research shows that the number of children looked after has increased by a third since 2008, while local authorities have faced a 50% reduction in budgets since 2010. Despite the barriers and backlogs caused by the pandemic, we continue to work intensively with children and families to enable them to stay together safely. The government must provide the sector with a sustainable, equitable and long-term financial settlement that enables children to thrive, not just survive in the wake of the pandemic.”

Headline facts and figures

Number of children
The total number of children looked after (CLA) and children on a child protection plan (CPP) has remained relatively stable between September 2021 and January 2022.
In January 2022 the number of CLA was 3% higher than the same time in 2019-20 and the total number of children on a CPP was 2% lower, similar to previous waves.

Contact in the last four weeks
A large proportion of CLA, children on a CPP and other children in need (CIN) had been in contact with a social worker in the last four weeks, and these proportions have remained stable between September 2021 and January 2022.

Social worker and residential care worker availability
Around 1 in 10 (11%) of local authorities reported over 10% of their social workers unable to work due to coronavirus (COVID- 19) in January 2022. This increased from zero local authorities between October – December 2021.
Almost a quarter of local authorities (23%) reported over 10% of their residential care staff unable to work due to coronavirus (COVID-19) in January 2022. This increased from 4% in November – December 2021.

Referrals
The number of referrals in September 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.

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