MORE than a fifth of jobs in Bradford's child social services were unfilled before the coronavirus outbreak, with concerns that the lockdown could pile more pressure on an already stretched system and put vulnerable children at even greater risk.

Councils across England have reported high vacancy rates and reliance on expensive agency staff in their child protection operations.

New Department for Education figures show there were 97 full-time equivalent job vacancies in child and family social work in Bradford in September - 22 per cent of a fully-staffed workforce.

Temporary agency staff, who can be more expensive for councils than regular employees, were covering 72 of these vacancies.

Mark Douglas, Strategic Director of Children’s Services at Bradford Council, said: “Ensuring children are kept safe and families continue to be supported is our top priority. The shortage in social workers is a national issue that is felt in all local authorities. We know that coronavirus presents an unprecedented risk, so we are keeping the situation under constant review.

“We have taken action to ensure that we have enough social workers caring for children across our district. All assessments are being done digitally, where possible, to make sure that we all observe social distancing requirements. We have ensured that there are sufficient resources available, across the district, to respond to urgent situations.

“We have also been in discussion with the Department for Education to look at changes that will help. With DfE approval, we will be fast tracking final year social work students and also community resource workers who have completed their final year. We will also continue to recruit social workers in other ways. This will help us overcome shortages, in the both the short and longer-term.”

Across England, there were more than 6,000 vacancies, a figure that has increased by 4 per cent since September 2018.

The Government has predicted that up to a fifth of the workforce across Britain could be off work at the peak of the virus.

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union, said social workers are already struggling, with many off sick or in self-isolation, meaning less qualified staff or unqualified assistants could be asked to step up.

"There could be a real shortfall of qualified staff - it is happening already," Mr McGowan said.

"Some councils have put an appeal out to people in management or who haven’t practiced in a while to say ‘can you come back to the front line and fill the gaps?’"

He added: "Social workers have been lost in this equation. There’s a lot of support for NHS staff but few mentions of social workers who are out seven days a week helping vulnerable people. There needs to be an expression that social workers are a part of this too, that they are essential, and they need to feel valued."