THE Social Workers Union claims that Dorset could struggle to maintain its help to families if staff sickness levels increase because of coronavirus.

It says the authority has almost 50 staff vacancies and that social workers, based on official figures, are already dealing with 20 per cent more cases than they were in 2016.

But Dorset Council says it is doing better than many authorities in filling vacancies for children’s social workers – although 8.5% of posts remain unfilled.

It also says plans are in place to cope with the pandemic which should ensure families continue to be helped, even if staff levels fall because of illness.

The council says it currently has 49 vacancies, of which 34 are currently being covered by agency staff, 50 per cent up on agency staff numbers in September. The council says ‘some’ agency staff are in the process of becoming permanent employees, although it does not say how many.

Official statistics from the Department for Education show that in September there were 43 full-time equivalent job vacancies in child and family social work in Dorset – which it said was 19% of a fully-staffed workforce. The Department said that temporary agency staff, who can be far more expensive for councils than regular employees, were covering 22 of the vacancies at the time.

The Government has predicted that up to a fifth of the workforce across Britain could be off work at the peak of the coronavirus.

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said social workers are already struggling with the effects of the outbreak, with many off sick or in self-isolation.

“There could be a real shortfall of qualified staff – it is happening already.”

He added said that some councils, including Dorset, are already reducing contacts with youngsters on child protection plans because of a shortage of staff.

Councils across England have reported problems recruiting and retaining staff in recent years, which the SWU blames on high workloads, poor management, and a lack of well-being support.

Social workers in Dorset had an average of 17.6 cases each in September according to the Department of Education. Dorset Council’s aim has been to keep that down to 16. The DoE figures suggest that workloads for Dorset children’s social workers has increased by more than 20 per cent since 2016, the first year in which caseload figures were published, when it was 13.4. However the actual figures for front line social workers is higher than either of the ‘averages’ – the official figure for caseloads is worked out by including managers who do not hold individual cases.

The Social Workers Union says councils need an urgent cash injection for child services, as well as personal protective equipment to protect frontline workers while they carry out home visits.

Mr McGowan added: “Social workers have been lost in this equation. There’s a lot of support for NHS staff but few mentions of social workers who are out seven days a week helping vulnerable people.

Dorset’s Executive Director for Children’s Services at Dorset Council said the authority is looking after staff and vulnerable families and children: “Our sense of duty is even greater during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our social workers are among the critical workers and are carrying out home visits safely, in line with national guidance…

“For those children and families we are already working with, we have contingency plans in place for every child and are also mobilising our workforce to move into different roles to offer additional support should we have employees who are self-isolating or have coronavirus symptoms. We’re also extending contracts for any agency workers who were due to finish working with us to make sure we have that additional capacity.”

“Our Children’s Advice and Duty Service is also still running as normal. This team is on hand 24-hours-a-day and seven-days-a-week to support other professionals who have any concerns about a child.

“We are passionate about what we do and will continue to keep our children, families and foster carers at the heart of everything we do.”