The impacts of COVID-19 on our society – both in the short and long term – are myriad. But one area that doesn’t seem to have attracted the same level of attention over the last 12 months is the impact it has had on demand for children’s social care (CSC). There has been much conjecture that it is likely to drive demand up, but no comprehensive data has yet been published to prove that assumption.
However, our current work with a number of councils – along with access to up-to-date but not yet public case and finance data – is showing that the speculation (at least in the short-term) is absolutely true. For many Councils, the pandemic has had an immediate impact on CSC demand, particularly during the initial lockdown when schools closed for physical attendance, and then immediately following from July onwards.
Given that we are still now making our way out of a third national lockdown, we believe that, for many councils, what happened during – and immediately after – the first lockdown is likely to repeat itself. That is, more demand and more cost pressures within CSC services, putting many councils in a difficult situation. While it is still too early to say with certainty whether the impacts will be worse this time, one of our working assumptions in developing current demand forecasts is that, for some councils, it is likely to be.
The two graphs below show two trends across 20 councils: the number of external CSC residential placements made between April and June 2020 (when the first national lockdown and school closures occurred), and then immediately following (July to December 2020). These councils are a random mix of unitaries, counties, metropolitan boroughs and city councils. The results are stark.
Trend in residential placements
When we assessed the average cost of external CSC residential placements for the same 20 councils, our research also found that there had been an increase in costs - rising 6% in the six months from April 2020, compared to a 5% increase across the whole year from April 2019 to March 2020.
Implications for children’s social care departments
While there are many reasons for demand in CSC, there are four recognised primary drivers (which are far from mutually exclusive) namely:
- Domestic violence
- Substance misuse
- Children, young people and family mental health
COVID-19 and the resultant national lockdowns have – from all the evidence publicly available to date and our work in these areas – exacerbated these societal ills. This is resulting in increased demand pressures on CSC departments and will likely continue to do so, at least during the rest of this year.
This, combined with ever-increasing costs in external residential placements (our analysis is showing the average weekly cost of such placements is now over £4,000 per week – a near 50% increase in five years) will put even greater pressure on CSC budgets this year.
Forecasting is key
There are a number of reviews ongoing or announced into CSC which, in the long-term, should hopefully result in some fundamental changes - including the government’s independent review into CSC, and the Competition and Markets Authority market study. However, they are unlikely to have an impact on the very real demand and cost pressures facing CSC departments in the current financial year. There are many things that councils are doing on a day-to-day basis to best manage and alleviate these pressures. But developing detailed and robust forecasts, based off what is happening right now in your council, as well as what is happening more widely, is critical; to both setting a realistic baseline, and managing expectations with key stakeholders around expected CSC spend. Current budgets for this financial year may not fully reflect the impact of COVID-19, and there are many aspects that are outside the ability of CSC departments, and councils more widely, to control in the short term. But being able to build a clear picture of the current state of play, and understanding the likely future demand, will be key for many this coming year.