The coronavirus pandemic has piled pressure on the health system and battered the economy.
But behind people’s front doors, it has also led to growing domestic abuse, radicalisation and child sexual exploitation.
In Oldham – one of the Greater Manchester boroughs hardest hit by the virus, with infection rates frequently in the country’s top ten – social workers are now expecting the impact on its young people to play out well into 2021.
The closure of schools, coupled with lockdown orders and restrictions on socialising, has all led to more concerns for the protection of children forced to spend more time at home.
Gerard Jones, executive director for children and young people, described the impact of coronavirus as a ‘complete shock to the system’.
“The sheer impact of Covid in Oldham is burning its way through our community,” he said.
He said bosses have since seen a ‘spike’ in children needing to be put on protection plans during the crisis.
“We’ve had quite a lot of referrals since July. It was fairly quiet in the beginning of lockdown and then gradually it started, it was a bit of a tsunami which gradually built and built,” Mr Jones added.
“We haven’t seen our looked after numbers [children being taken into care] rise, but we have seen a lot of pressure in the system and some really serious domestic abuse.
“It’s always serious, but we’re seeing the most serious – and new cases of domestic abuse, with very, very serious implications.
“We’ve also seen more Prevent type of referrals actually, this is young people in their bedrooms – that’s what’s happening, the risk of radicalisation.
“But also child sexual exploitation generally has been greater, people are taking the opportunity and advantage of it particularly people who are online or stuck in their rooms.”
Gerard Jones, the Executive Director for Children and Young People at Oldham council
Like many directors of children’s services, Mr Jones believes schools should be kept open as much as possible, not just because of the impact on young people’s education, but also because schools are a ‘good and safe place’.
“Our kids have missed an awful lot of school and also they’ve been most affected in their families with the infection deaths and the lockdown,” he added.
“We never stopped home visiting for the most part for the vulnerable.
“We never lost touch with the most vulnerable children, we kept close to them because we knew that bad things could happen.
“We’re almost permanently locked down in Oldham and it’s really hard – I think there is going to be a generational impact on young people.
“There’s learning they have lost that they will really really struggle ever to catch up and they will be known as the Covid generation.”
As the pandemic hit in March, the social work team in Oldham first began working remotely and then was reconfigured into bubbles as leaders realised the teams needed face-to-face support.
“If you’re a social worker sometimes people do spit in your face actually, believe it or not, or they’re very nasty to you and it’s a very tough experience,” Mr Jones said.
“And you usually go back to the office and sit round with your colleagues and go ‘god almighty that was awful’, these are tough jobs that people are doing in very challenging circumstances.
“What we’ve done is make sure we get phone calls to people regularly and bring them all into the office.
“They all get to come in in their bubbles so they get to sit and talk to each other because you’ve got to keep that human connectedness going, particularly when you’re doing very trying work.
“A lot of social work visits, they’re not all easy. We’ve got some difficult messages to give to some people which they don’t necessarily value.”
Currently, the council is endeavouring to strengthen its children services department, which was demoted from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted in August 2015.
Bosses pledged last year to invest £12m until 2022 to cement improvement into the system.
This December marked Mr Jones’ first anniversary of a tumultuous year in the top job.
A social worker of origin, he had worked in numerous challenging areas around the country – getting a bullet hole through the window while in Birmingham – and was brought into Oldham to oversee its improvement programme.
Despite the ongoing waves of the pandemic, Ofsted carried out a focused review of the council’s children’s services department over three days in October.
Mr Jones frankly admitted it was so busy that they needed the visit ‘like a hole in the head’.
But he was thrilled with the findings of the report, which although stating there was yet more to be done to improve the department, they had protected vulnerable children through the crisis.
“There are things in there we still need to do more of and it isn’t perfect,” he said.
“We’re focusing on the right things and we’re not complacent that things don’t need to improve further in Oldham, because of course they do.
“But the finding that we kept children safe during Covid was really important to me because that’s what we’re here to do, that’s our moral purpose to protect the most vulnerable children and young people.
“They said not only have you responded to this but you have increased the momentum of improvement.
“That’s a team effort.”
The report by one of the five Ofsted inspectors, Lorna Schlechte stated there are three elements that need to improve social work practice – partner attendance at key decision-making meetings, recording of rationale for next steps in strategy meetings and quality of oversight and challenge from child protection chairs, including when children step down from child protection plans.
However she stated: “Children continue to be safeguarded and help has been provided through the establishment of five community hubs, to avoid families falling into food poverty.
“A major incident command structure led to daily ‘bronze’ partnership meetings to ensure that vulnerable children were identified and risk-assessed during a time of great uncertainty.
“After an initial dip in referrals in April, the level of demand increased to pre-pandemic levels, as a result of effective work with partners and the community to ensure that concerns about children are referred appropriately.”