Pandemic Ethics: Rethinking rights, responsibilities and roles in social work

Sarah Banks, Nikki Rutter

This article explores responses of 41 UK social workers to ethical challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, utilising UK data from an international qualitative survey and follow-up interviews in 2020. Challenges ranged from weighing individual rights/ needs against public health risks, to deciding whether to follow government/agency rules and guidance. Drawing on a narrative methodology to explore ethical agency, four broad types of response are identified: ethical confusion; ethical distress; ethical creativity and ethical learning. The article considers conditions that promote ethical creativity and learning: time and slow ethics; teamwork and co-creating the future and professional judgement and ethics work. It examines cognitive and emotional efforts required to make professional judgements in new conditions, when existing practices and procedures are unavailable, showing how the concept of ‘ethics work’ assists in identifying the invisible labour behind judgements and decisions in challenging circumstances. Whilst some practitioners sought clearer guidance from above, others made tailored professional ethical judgements about what would be right under particular circumstances for particular people. This capacity underpins good professional practice, and has been highlighted during the pandemic. It is important that social work post-pandemic reclaims the role of professional ethical judgement, which has been undermined by decades of managerialism and procedure-driven practice.