How do we uphold human rights in the face of Covid-19? Right now, human rights could be the only safety net for some. How are social workers managing?
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Covid-19 Information

This is an important year for social care.

It’s 50 years since the creation of local authority social services. From day one, social care has been about improving quality of life and reducing risk for people in our communities.

The UK knows how important it is to have a well-trained, committed, and supported social care workforce. Social Work England (SWE) is the regulator of course, and it is also focused on enabling ‘positive change’ in social work.

Why is the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) concerned about human rights?

When the pandemic took hold earlier this year, government moved quickly to implement emergency legislation. The Coronavirus Act 2020 took the view that public bodies would need “tools and powers” to carry out an effective response to the emergency. The director of BIHR, Sanchita Hosali was encouraged to see the legislation’s reference to human rights. However, the Act effectively relieves local authorities of their duties to provide social care support under the Care Act 2014 and will only oblige them to provide support in cases where human rights will otherwise be breached.

What does this mean for social workers? Their professional standards are clear, specified by SWE and backed up by policies, procedures and legislation developed over five decades. And yet, the Coronavirus Act 2020 gives local authorities the ability to strike through chunks of ‘admin’ and ‘assessment’ to free them up for other, 'crucial' services.

Pressure groups such as Liberty and Disability Rights UK were quick to respond with serious concerns about the Act’s implications for human rights, and cite the new powers of detention, the reduction of care standards and vital safeguards, and the two year lifespan of these emergency measures.

A later amendment, known as Statutory Instrument 445, was met with outrage and disbelief when it became clear that as many as 65 safeguards would be removed or diluted. When it came into effect on 24 April 2020, it meant that the risk faced by some of our most vulnerable children have substantially increased.

Incredible

At the centre of every social worker’s practice is the drive to improve lived experience and enhance quality of life – and human rights are implicit in that commitment. It’s incredible that BIHR is concerned that social workers may not have what they need to confidently uphold human rights at this time.

Earlier this month, BIHR director, Sanchita Hosali, told Community Care that, despite the Coronavirus Act’s focus on maintaining human rights, and in a context where tried and tested processes may be abandoned, staff have not been given the training they need to ensure they are still human rights-compliant.

Legal challenge

Government can be under no illusions that the Act is open to criticism in this respect. A raft of legal challenges have been brought, ranging from medical cases, those concerning adult social care obligations, downgrading duties towards children with education, health and care plans, and all children’s right to family life.

While it’s clear that government must oversee the ‘big picture’ and pass on the human rights message to local authorities, the nitty gritty of social care is evident in the caseloads of social workers all over the country.

Research into child protection and social distancing shows that social workers are indeed challenged every day as they attempt to balance the risks of infection with the need to keep children safe during the public health crisis. One said “I can’t not go into houses … that is taking more risk probably than lots of other people, but we don’t have a choice at this point.” And of course, the ripple effect is very real in these cases. Another social worker removed two children from their home “and they sat in my own children’s car seats. You couldn’t get closer to my family … I had the gloves on, one was four months and the other three years and had to be lifted into the car”. In spite of the risk to the social worker’s own three children, there were no regrets, and a feeling of inevitability in the phrase: “I’d probably do it again.”

Even at the best of times, social workers can feel that demand outstrips their resources, and this is certainly amplified by Covid-19 restrictions. When it’s hard to get close to the children and adults in their care, social workers need to feel that their employers and the public appreciate their hard work, courage and expertise, not to mention the risk they choose to take on.