The sector has risen admirably to the challenges of COVID-19. But it needs to remain vigilant when it comes to what happens next, says Peter Keeling.
If the current emergency has demonstrated anything, it’s the importance of having a robust healthcare system. Drug and alcohol treatment and recovery services form an absolutely essential part of this, but like so many others our sector is facing incredible challenges because of COVID-19.
The fact that services from community treatment to residential rehab have been able to find solutions is testament to both the sector’s innovative strength and the dedication of its key workers. And it’s these qualities that are keeping people safe. But now we need to ask ourselves about the next steps for drug and alcohol treatment, and what lies ahead for the people who rely on our support.
Over the past few months, Collective Voice has been working hard to bring together people and organisations from across the sector, so we can identify key challenges and find solutions that work for everybody. We’ve seen unprecedented levels of collaboration across third sector providers, NHS trusts and commissioners, who have all brought their expertise to bear on what is possible when it comes to provision of OST, face-to-face interventions, supported housing, and many other areas of our work.
It’s far too early to assess the longer-term impacts of changes to these core aspects of treatment and recovery. But even at this early stage it’s clear that many in our field are asking themselves the hard questions of ‘what do we keep?’ and ‘what do we lose?’ The sector has always been a champion of innovation and flexibility when it comes to designing services around people’s needs, and this flexibility has been crucial in recent months. It has allowed us to keep people supplied with life-saving OST medication and food, helped us create safe spaces for women and children fleeing abuse and violence and, almost overnight, allowed the sector to shift to digital ways of working so frontline staff can maintain crucial relationships with their clients and support them in their recovery.
The crisis has also highlighted our sector’s ability to collaborate; not just at national policy level, but also at local levels. Because it’s at these levels that drug and alcohol services have established themselves as key partners in cross-sector initiatives that support some of the most vulnerable people in society. The London Homeless Hotels Drug and Alcohol Support Service (HDAS), brought together to provide treatment for people living in hotels under the government’s rough sleeping initiative, is a perfect example of the kind of innovative, collaborative response the sector is capable of. Similarly in Dorset, Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust is working with drug and alcohol partners and the local public health team so that council delivery drivers can provide vulnerable service users with OST medications. Across the country, there are many other examples of such collaboration.
These local and national relationships have helped the sector support itself during an extremely turbulent period where quick decisions have had to be made to keep people safe. Areas that already had strong relationships across sectors tell us they’ve been well placed to respond quickly, and councils which already had good relationships with the voluntary sector have stated how critical these relationships have been when mobilising the local response.
The sector has proven itself entirely capable of meeting the immediate challenges of COVID-19, but what comes next? Because as we look to how services will operate in the ‘new normal’, there are a number of issues that are already causing concern.
1. Increased alcohol consumption
The effects of social isolation during the COVID-19 lockdown appear to be having a noticeable effect on the country’s alcohol consumption. Recent research from Alcohol Change UK, while highlighting some positive indications of a segment of the population who are actually drinking less during lockdown, nonetheless showed that around one in five drinkers are drinking more frequently (DDN, May, page 5). The longer-terms effect of such a substantial portion of the population negatively changing their relationship with alcohol could create a potential new cohort of people seeking treatment as they begin to recognise their consumption has changed for the worse. If there is an increase how will it be paid for? None of us have a crystal ball but it seems fair to say there may well be questions over the level of public spending the country can afford and we know that people with drug or alcohol problems are a frequently discriminated-against group.
2. Rough sleeping exit strategy
The move to swiftly house people in hotels and other temporary accommodation during the COVID-19 emergency has, in many ways, been a success story. It has taken enormous energy across different systems from local authority workers to homelessness, mental health and drug and alcohol workers, but as the COVID-19 emergency enters its second phase, the contracts with hotels to accommodate people previously sleeping rough will end. This leaves our sector, and the many other connected parts of the system, with a significant challenge to continue providing support. But it is also an important (possibly never-before-seen) opportunity for services to create pathways into long-term meaningful support for people who have historically sometimes been difficult to engage (see news, page 4). Ensuring continued accommodation obviously needs to be at the heart of the planning for this group, but it will be a wasted effort for many people if the building blocks of wider support are not also put in place – especially access to drug and alcohol treatment.
3. Local government funding
We welcome the £3.2bn commitment by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to support people in the most vulnerable of circumstances during this unprecedented crisis. Local authorities have already distributed some of this funding to fortify services that support people experiencing multiple disadvantage, particularly around rough sleeping, and it is testament to the strength of collaboration between local government and treatment providers that our service users have been kept as safe as possible. But since the funding lacks protection, we are concerned that some public health services – including drug and alcohol treatment – will not benefit from its distribution. This funding is needed by a sector that has been forced to take on unexpected emergency costs around PPE procurement, and payment of locum and bank staff to cover staff sickness.
4. Unforeseen consequences of service adaptation
Services have mobilised quickly and effectively to adapt, while both managing risk and maintaining effective support. But there will soon be a need for the sector to properly assess the consequences of these changes and their effects on service users’ treatment and recovery. The remote (and particularly digital) delivery of assessment, key working and more structured interventions has undoubtedly made services more accessible for some people, and the forced changes to OST provision are likely to provide benefits going forward. But there will still be people in desperate need of treatment for whom online services will not be appropriate, and it is vital that these changes are seen as a welcome addition to the range of available services, not as a replacement. At a time when investment in drug and alcohol services may become challenging, and where digital services could be seen to be a cost-saving exercise, the sector must be vigilant as to the effects of service adaptation and ensure an appropriate balance is found.
Finally… We want to pay tribute to the thousands of workers across the country providing essential treatment and support to people with drug and alcohol problems. COVID-19 has shone a light on the extreme vulnerability of many of our citizens, from rough sleeping to domestic violence, and we will continue to push for our sector, and its many unsung heroes, to receive the same level of recognition. But we can only do this with your help and expertise, which is why we’ve launched some new ways to communicate with the field, including a weekly bulletin and an open source Slack community (all details at www.collectivevoice.org.uk). We want to hear from you about how we can best support the sector, so please do get in touch: Peter@collectivevoice.org.uk