Digital Tech Older People

Digital technology and coronavirus: Embedding learning for the future

Published: 19/05/2020

What is the role of digital technology in social work practice during the current ‘lockdown’ and its potential value post-lockdown as social distancing measures are gradually relaxed by the government?

The current pandemic has meant the ‘traditional’ ways of doing social work have had to fundamentally change. Measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus require that social workers develop alternative methods of conducting relational, strengths-based social work ‘at a distance’, as many are now working from home, unable to carry out home visits to adults, children and families they work with. While this new reality has undoubtedly presented challenges for those working in health and social care, it also offers real opportunities for learning and for the development of a more inclusive practice, which bridges the UK’s ‘digital divide’, as well as to ensure lessons learnt during this outbreak can continue well into the future. 

‘Virtual’ social work practice

The use of digital technology was already a crucial and expanding skill for those working in health and social care but the coronavirus (COIVD-19) outbreak and accompanying ‘lockdown’ have brought the digitisation of social work, digital competency and digital connectivity sharply into focus. The pandemic catalysed the rapid deployment of a range of technological resources to mitigate the negative impacts of social distancing measures, including; Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Facetime, Telegram, WhatsApp, Whereby, and Zoom. These applications are now readily used to facilitate video meetings with colleagues, but they can also provide a space for online communities of practice (Greenhalgh and Papoutsi, 2019) or for online supervision, as discussed in a recent podcast. They also offer opportunities for peer-support in the form of ‘virtual’ coffee breaks for example. 

Digital platforms similarly constitute a valuable tool for ensuring that services can continue to run during ‘lockdown’, enabling adults who use services to maintain ownership and control over their care and support, as well as to be included in key decision-making processes and multi-agency meetings (Boahen, 2020).Technology in this sense enables practitioners to uphold the key tenets of an inclusive, co-produced practice, while also incorporating the principles of strengths-based working. A new adult social care app has also been launched to support workers during the pandemic. Care and assistive technologies continue to play a vital role in the longer-term sustainable care, support and (digital) inclusion of older adults and those with disabilities (Lariviere 2018; Oakley and Rose, 2019). For those working with children or families, digital technologies make virtual contact possible, using methods of communication children and young people may be more familiar with. But the use of digital technologies is heavily dependent upon access to the internet as well as to a device equipped with the relevant applications. It is therefore important to consider how internet access might be secured for those who do not have it, as well as for existing care plans and packages to be reviewed in the light of this new context of need (Boahen, 2020).

Internet security, data protection and ethical considerations

While there is limited research on the use of video conferencing in acute pandemic situations, guidance has recently been issued for conducting video consultations in medical settings (Greenhalgh et al, 2020, 2020a), which has wider applicability to social work practice. Existing guidelines around the ethical use of digital technologies remain applicable, and map onto the Social Worker digital capabilities framework. Indeed, the ethical considerations associated with the integration of social media and digital technology in social work practice have been debated for some time now (Boddy and Dominelli, 2016; Taylor, 2017) but in the context of a crisis, they are particularly complex (Alexander, 2014) as the scope and reach of information exchange is greatly increased. 

The switch to home working may also generate concerns among some practitioners in health and social care regarding data protection and internet security. The Information Commissioners Office (ICO) have issued guidance around this, emphasising that current data protection (GDPR) and electronic communication laws do not prevent working from home, or the use of digital technology to facilitate ‘virtual’ visits. The NHS has issued new guidance around the use of technology during the outbreak, reminding health and social care colleagues that it is permissible to share information across the aforementioned digital platforms in the current circumstances. Information sharing is also critical to support health and social services, to protect public health, research, and to track and manage outbreak and incidence of exposure.

Digital in/exclusion

The coronavirus outbreak has exposed deep social divisions, including the scale of the UK’s digital exclusion as 1.9 million households have no access to the internet, and 25.9 million more rely upon costly pay-as-you-go data services (ONS, 2019). A significant portion of older adults have also never used the internet. But as Featherstone and Bowyer (2020) and Neil and Copson (2020) have all alluded to in recent blogposts, the increased use of ‘remote’ social work has at the same time advanced concerns regarding the millions of households with limited or no internet access.

The government have issued guidance around the procurement of technological support for children and schools during lockdown which includes the provision of devices, and there is an active digital inclusion campaign. There is also a bursary fund for 16-19 year olds. Technology advancements such as the one-button computer KOMP and Kraydel also offer vital mechanisms  for bringing the advantages of an internet-connected world to older adults and those less able to negotiate the complexities of mainstream digital technology, particularly during the ‘lockdown’. There is new guidance for installing and using digital services in care homes and for keeping in touch with people while care homes are unable to accept visitors. These are in addition to a host of digital inclusion policy initiatives outlined in earlier blogposts.

Looking to a post-‘lockdown’ future

While ‘traditional’ public health measures for addressing the coronavirus will endure, along with more typical social work practices, there is now a range of digital technologies available to augment and enhance existing public health (Ting et al, 2020) and social work practices. Existing research on the use of digital innovations, particularly in relation to video conferencing point to the potential gains of upscaling their use well into the future (Greenhalgh and Papoutsi, 2019). The government is currently trialling a smart phone app, geared towards the tracking and tracing of infections; social workers, care workers, personal care assistants and all other ‘frontline’ workers are uniquely situated to support the roll out of this technology to the people they work with, so that they are not digitally ‘left behind’. And as we move into a ‘post-lockdown’ future, we are prompted to ask how we might continue to harness and galvanise the benefits of digital technology to better aid strengths-based, person-centred care and support for adults, children and families in receipt of services. What does a ‘post-Covid’ social care future look like considering the rapid advancements already made in relation to the digitisation of social work during this pandemic? How might we reconceptualise care and housing solutions (Burgess, 2018; Quinio and Burgess, 2019) for a future generation of older people? These pressing questions, among others, will be explored in an upcoming Evidence Review on Ageing Well due to be published by Research in Practice towards the end of this year.


Alexander, D.E. (2014). Social Media in Disaster Risk Reduction and Crisis Management. Sci Eng Ethics 20, 717–733.

Burgess, G. (2018). Is co-living a good choise to support healthy, happy ageing at home? Summary and Conclusions. Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research.

Boddy, J. and Dominelli, L. (2017) Social Media and Social Work: The Challenges of a New Ethical Space, Australian Social Work, 70:2, 172-184. 

Quinio and Burgess, G. (2019). Is co-living a housing solution for vulnerable older people? Final Report. Cambridge Centre for Housing & Planning Research.

Greenhalgh, T. and Papoutsi, C. (2019) Spreading and scaling up innovation and improvement BMJ 365. 

Greenhalgh T, Wherton J, Shaw S, Morrison C. (2020). Video consultations for Covid-19. BMJ 368. 

Greenhalgh, T, Morrison C, Koh Choon Huat G. (2020a). Video Consultations: a guide for practice. 

Lariviere, M. (2018). The role of technology in making care arrangements sustainable. Centre for International Research on Care, Labour & Equalities.

Office for National Statistics (ONS). (2019). Exploring the UK’s digital divide.  

NHS (2019) A Health and Care Digital Capabilities Framework. 

SCIE & BASW (2019) Digital capabilities for social workers: Stakeholders’ report.

Taylor, Amanda (2017) Social work and digitalisation: bridging the knowledge gaps, Social Work Education, 36:8, 869-879. 

Ting, D.S.W., Carin, L., Dzau, V. et al. (2020). Digital technology and COVID-19. Nat Med 26, 459–461.