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“One of the founding fathers of Europe, Jean Monnet, said that every crisis will make Europe stronger, however [in this crisis] we see issues with solidarity everywhere [in Europe]. Working together with everyone is important because the crisis we face is shared” said Christian Fillet, Chair of ESN. The COVID-19 crisis continues to change the way we live our lives, and importantly how social services continue to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable. Undoubtedly, the crisis will have an impact on how social services plan their future responses. To understand the challenges social services are currently facing and the responses they have developed, the European Social Network (ESN) organised on 24 April the webinar COVID-19 and Social Services-Challenges and Future Planning. The aim of the webinar was to discuss, with national directors of public social services, the European Commission and over 200 participants, what can we learn from the current crisis to inform our future planning and how can we support these plans through available national and European instruments.

Social services and COVID-19 - Challenges and Responses

“We are seeing and experiencing increased inequality for children, people with disabilities, older people and victims of domestic abuse” said Elisabet Gonzalez Barcelona County Council. The challenges for social services are varied and complex but common across different national contexts. They range from the difficult conditions in which services are delivered by social care professionals, to technological requirements needed to work from home and to try to continue delivering services.

ESN members highlighted a range of challenges from, increasing levels of poverty due to unemployment caused by the crisis, ensuring access to social services for those most at need, and providing good quality residential and home care for older people. Further to this, the speakers highlighted common problems with the need to increase social service budgets; the City of Bruges for example requested an additional 3.5 million € for social services to be able to meet the need of vulnerable groups.

In response to these challenges, ESN members highlighted the need for better coordination in how services respond at local level. In Sweden, the development of multidisciplinary teams of health and social professionals have had a positive impact on addressing underlying social issues in the wake of the crisis. In Barcelona, the online adaption of social service delivery has meant that vulnerable groups continue to access the support they need be it for addiction services or mediation sessions. In Bruges, the provision of laptops has meant that vulnerable children are able to access education and information.

Learning form the Crisis - Future planning and support instruments

We are dealing with the same issues on COVID-19 in Europe, but witnessed how countries started to deal with them separately, we need to move beyond this and show solidarity at all levels” said Alfonso Lara Montero, ESN CEO. The fallout of the COVID-19 crisis is sure to be stark. The current economic outlook for the coming months and possible years paint a picture last seen at the outset of the 2008 financial crisis which stretched the capacity of social services.

“To respond to future crises, we need to rethink how we develop our future plans” argued Graham Owen, Association of Director Social Services, Sweden. Addressing common problems requires developing common solutions. All social services contributors highlighted the scale of the problem which will ensue after the crisis, but also reiterated the need to rethink how services are planned, developed, financed, and delivered. Bruges highlighted the importance of ensuring access to services for those who need them, and that more emphasis will be placed on furthering outreach to those in need. In Barcelona, there will be a revision of local public policies to address the new context and identification of the new social and health needs. In Sweden, there will be a need to incorporate more planning and coordination across services, both social and health.

It is therefore imperative that social services use the lessons learnt from this crisis to plan for future crisis’, and importantly that they are financially supported to do so by the European and national level. At the EU level, Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, European Commission’s Social Policy Director, highlighted the support measures which the EU developed to address the crisis at national level: the Coronavirus Response Initiative (CRI) and the CRI+. Both initiatives are funded through the money which has not been spent from the European Regional and Development Fund (ERDF). The fund, which will be made available to the national level, aims to protect people and protect people in work. One such initiative which will be supported is widespread screening and detection for the COVID-19 virus.

EU funds are jointly managed by the EU and the national authorities, therefore social services must convince their governments to increase budgetary margins so that new strategies can be planned, developed, and implemented. On this, the European Commission reiterated the importance of social service authorities lobbying their ministries for funding. Katharina Ivankovic-Knezevic stated “it is not an easy fight, fighting other stakeholders who are important for the national economy and who also require support. You must highlight [to national authorities] where the problems are and the solutions required”.

Improving coordination, promoting solidarity

There was overwhelming agreement that there is a need for a greater coordinated response between social and health providers to meet future needs. Further to this, we need to think of the social and health problems which will also emerge from physical and social isolation. Social services will also have to reconsider how they increase access for vulnerable groups, either through greater outreach or using new or existing technology.

There was an overwhelming message of solidarity at all levels amongst all members of society and that despite all the challenges and hard lessons learned there is a chance to come together and plan better future social services. “This situation also helped to flourish solidarity within society and with care professionals within and across countries. This made us stronger and more cohesive. These new experiences would have helped us prepare better for the future both in our personal and professional developments” concluded Alfonso Lara Montero, CEO ESN