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  • Writer's pictureGraeme Tiffany

Graeme Tiffany explores questions about detached youth work and the Track and Trace programme

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

The experience of working in the context of COVID19 has sparked a range of questions previously under-explored (if not unexplored) in the detached youth work community; among them are those about the NHS / PHE Track and Trace programme.

Of course, there are times when detached workers work indoors, which gives rise to the question: “do we have to record everyone’s name and contact details, as if we were in, say, a restaurant?” Then there is the question of whether to use the Track and Trace app - that we all have been encouraged to download onto our mobile phones, such that it will ‘ping’ if we come into close proximity with those who've been identified as having the virus.

In terms of the former, it’s true that the rules about working in indoor settings apply. In effect, we are working with ‘customers’, and there is, therefore, a demand for record-keeping. Names and contact numbers must be actively requested and recorded. Note here the app has this function: waive it in front of the Track and Trace QR code and your contact details will be recorded.

The theory is this aids Track and Trace programme staff in their work. Whomsoever has tested positive is asked to identify their ‘close contacts’, and it is these who will also be asked to self-isolate. And, legally, all parties should. Despite this, the evidence shows many self-isolate only partially, and few totally, as is the expectation; which takes me to my next point about the distinction between ‘rules’ and ‘guidance’ and how the boundaries between the two can be blurred in the minds of many.

Whilst the Track and Trace programme has specific legal functions, it also relays a good deal of guidance, which, if we need to be reminded, has no legal authority. The hope though is that what’s said engages people, gets them thinking, and helps them make 'informed choices' about how to behave. This will not be the first time youth workers have heard that conceptualisation.

As such (and in addition to informing young people about what the law says), the suggestion here is to use the guidance as a catalyst for discussion. In so doing, it’s worth remembering that there is much debate about the relationship between legalities and guidance. Typically, and pertinently in the case of COVID19, some say there should be more enforcement, that a greater range of behaviours should be proscribed, while others retort we should be trusted more to make our own decisions, and that mandation is both unnecessary and an attack on personal liberties. Others argue that attempting to force people to do things through the use of legal instruments is actually counter-productive, with some people being so incensed by such prescription they deliberately go against it. Better then, it’ said, to educate people, as they tend to respond more positively.

A case in point is the history of reluctance to vaccination programmes, designed to protect against deadly diseases, like Measles. What matters here is the concept of herd immunity (which was reasonably disparaged early on in the pandemic as then no vaccine existed: herd immunity is, after all, a product of vaccination programmes). And yet we know that unless a sufficient percentage of the population opts in no-one benefits. We might say, it’s times like these when we learn of the significance of ‘we’, and the power of making a commitment to the ‘we’. Call it ‘social solidarity’ if you like. And yet, if ‘anti-vaxers’ have their way, and the threshold levels through which herd immunity is achieved are not reached, there is the very real prospect that there will be a huge investment in COVID19 vaccine programmes and little to show for it.

A final point about working outside (and beyond the obvious: that it is far safer to do so compared with being indoors where transmission of the virus is more likely): you may encounter people in the community who question your engagement with young people. For example, you may be told you are encouraging young people to gather – counter to the guidance. Well, in terms of the law, you are a professional at work, and quite entitled to do so. (Note here previous Federation for Detached Youth Work guidance on obtaining the relevant paperwork from your local COVID19 hub / local authority / the police as evidence of this entitlement). That then leaves the wider question of should you be engaging young people.

Hopefully, you’ll see by now why I have considered the things I did above, and the tensions and dilemmas they illuminate. In turn, we find there is a diversity of moral and ethical questions, related to the concepts of privacy, consent, rights, surveillance, misinformation, disinformation, truth, freedom, liberty, and solidarity; and so on. Even the pronouns of ‘I’ and ‘we’ can be seen to have a philosophical character and are politically charged. The key point is to recognise all are ripe for the kind of dialogue-based educational interventions that youth work is rightfully famous for.

What emerges is the vital importance of being clear about who you are, what you are doing, what detached youth work actually is, and, most importantly, why you are doing it. Implicit in this is being able to articulate the value of the practice, to young people, the wider community, and partner agencies. This, of course, has become a pressing issue regardless of COVID19. Indeed, becoming expert in defining and communicating our practice, both in terms of meaning and value, is now, without doubt, an essential skill.

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