Covid-19 impact on social services: Lessons learnt and planning ahead

For the past three months, the European Social Network (ESN) has been addressing the impact of Covid-19 on social services with a series of webinars that have looked at continuity of care, measures supporting social services in emergency situations, and child protection in times of crisis. The fourth of these webinars was held on 16 June in cooperation with Accenture with speakers from the US, Ireland, and the UK focused on taking stock of social services responses and to use lessons learnt for future planning.

Issues faced

During the crisis, social services heroically jumped into action and did their best to connect with those who needed care and support. They did it in lots of different ways despite the many challenges they faced. Christina Becker, from the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) highlighted an increase in caseload with many families applying for health, nutrition, or economic support.

Phelim Quinn, CEO of Ireland’s Health and Quality Information Authority (HQIA), emphasised residential care for older people as the most challenging area from their regulator’s perspective, as they realised that many services were accommodated in buildings not suitable for caring for older people in the context of a pandemic. The cessation of inspections and the embargo on visiting meant that it was not possible to establish what the residents’ experience was like or to gather intelligence from relatives.

For Jim Thomas, from Skills for Care and Development in the UK, there was a serious issue with personal protective equipment (PPE) as health authorities bought and kept most of the stock. Therefore, it became almost impossible for social care providers to get hold of protective equipment for their staff and services.

Social services responses

Countries have handled the situation in different ways. For instance, in the US some states have set up multiple social services access points giving virtual access to call centres, online applications, mobile applications, or mobile friendly websites so that applicants can do the full process remotely. However, with 15 to 20% budget cuts there has already been an impact in staffing and services. “One state is closing 50 of their government branch offices throughout the state impacting on their communities not having access to any of these offices”, explained Christina Becker from APHSA.

There were difficulties controlling outbreaks in social care settings and difficulties for health services to understand that social care is not a clinical service and therefore the same principles do not apply. “We identified a homely service turned almost into a hospital with the installation of clinical equipment that was not right for the type of care provided”, said HQIA’s Phelim Quinn. A national public health emergency team was set up with the participation of health and social care providers and the regulator as well as remote monitoring and advisory services with specialists providing social care facilities with advice, signposting them to PPE or support from national health services.

Tools for future planning

The three speakers were in agreement that if difficult economic circumstances persist, outreach to communities that might not have had access to social services before may be needed. For instance, it is expected that there will be an increase in the number of child protection cases when children go back to school when there is reduced staff and capacity. Therefore, planning will be needed to provide better support for children and families.

Learning from difficulties in accessing PPE, there will be a requirement for a more intersectoral inter-agency approach between providers, commissioners, public health, primary and community health services.

Planning will need to take into consideration the needs of people using services and social care managers. Jim Thomas said: “Future responses to the pandemic will need to take into account the views and needs of the different population groups supported by social care, and the social care managers dramatically affected by the pandemic impact in their services”.