Working with children’s services providers during COVID-19: guidance to commissioners

This guidance note is for local authority commissioners of children’s social care and education placements. It is designed to summarise pressures on providers arising from COVID-19, and to put forward ways in which commissioners and providers can work together to alleviate these pressures. It also outlines support available to council commissioners during the outbreak.


The guidance deals with potential actions for commissioners, but we recognise that they will be working with their providers on a collaborative basis to identify issues and agree actions and mutual expectations. We expect providers to participate in these discussions in a meaningful way that puts the needs of children and young people at the heart of decision-making and recognises the need for strong collaboration between councils and providers.

The themes covered below are:

  • Collaboration and communication
  • Business continuity plans
  • Cashflow
  • Sick-pay
  • Workforce availability
  • Adjustment of support
  • Infection control costs
  • Support for commissioners

This guidance comes from a shared ambition between local authorities and providers to maximise availability of care and support, and to ensure that providers can remain operationally and financially resilient throughout and after the outbreak. The guidance is a temporary response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This guidance does not deal with issues of infection control, which can be accessed via Public Health England. The guidance also focusses on what local authority commissioners can do, in the knowledge that central government and other organisations are also giving their own guidance and mitigation.

Local government makes decisions within the confines of the law and considering local factors. We describe the actions in this document as what commissioners “can” do: our expectation is that commissioners and providers will work closely together to consider all of these issues and identify mitigation measures, doing what is necessary, possible and appropriate to ensure that children and young people continue to receive good quality care and support throughout the crisis. All decisions on payments to suppliers will continue to be made locally.

Commissioners may incur extra costs, on a case by case basis, in meeting this guidance. The Government has provided councils with £3.2 billion to support council responses to COVID-19, however there are significant pressures on this funding, which covers the entire range of council responsibilities. As a result, all additional costs will need to be clearly evidenced by providers to support commissioners in applying for additional funds and to inform discussions between councils and central government on further financial support more generally. We will continue to highlight to government the cost pressures arising from the COVID-19 response to support asks for further funding; any examples of additional costs that need to be met will support this work and should be sent to coronavirus.enquiries@local.gov.uk

Where providers incur additional cost pressures as a result of COVID-19 we expect that providers and local authorities work together to explore a range of relief options before local authorities can consider additional payments on top of the agreed placement fee.

This is a first iteration of our guidance and has been produced quickly but in the knowledge that other issues may emerge. We would therefore expect to supplement this guidance in the light of such issues, and taking into account feedback from councils, providers and stakeholders.

Collaboration and communication

Providers face a fast moving and uncertain operational environment. They will need the ability to raise issues and get answers quickly, and to be able to solve problems collaboratively, both with commissioners and with each other. Similarly, providers should ensure that they have good processes in place to provide commissioners with appropriate updates and to ensure transparency.

Commissioners can support collaborative working by ensuring that there is good two-way communication. They should also ensure that all providers know where to access relevant information produced locally and nationally. They can ensure that outward communication from councils and Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) is streamlined and coherent, rather than fragmented. Where commissioners need to ask providers for updates they can do so in a “tell us once” way with regular updates.

Because of the high level of collaboration within children’s services, local authorities should utilise routes of communication within established collaborative arrangements to reduce the burden on providers providing the same information multiple times.  Similarly, where established collaborative working arrangements are in place, providers should direct queries to the Lead Authority or nominated Lead for any collaboration of which they are a part.

Business Continuity Plans

Good business continuity planning assists resilience and where possible, providers and councils should be working together to strengthen business continuity plans in relation to infectious diseases to ensure that these remain up-to-date and relevant. Ongoing two-way communication around business continuity is of paramount importance.

Routine requests for providers’ BCPs should be avoided, unless there is an intention to analyse the plans collaboratively and offer constructive guidance. BCPs should be the starting point between providers and commissioners to identify which parts of a BCP seem robust, and which aspects need further work.

Local authorities should use information from providers to both support their planning processes, and to help them to identify where they can provide support to providers.

Requests for information and BCPs should flow through the lead authority or nominated lead of collaborative arrangements, where these are in place, to reduce the administrative burden on providers. Reasonable requests for information should be responded to by providers in a timely manner to support ongoing business continuity planning for the local authority.

Commissioners can also help providers by ensuring that they share their own local resilience plans, and by ensuring that providers are linked into the wider considerations and plans of LRFs, such as transport or school closures. These wider links are important, for example enabling care staff to continue to work while schools are partially closed or transport links are affected or supporting providers with supply chain resilience.

Cashflow

Invoice generation will become an increasingly complex activity.  Providers will be focused on delivering support to people and managing sickness absence in their own workforce.

All decisions around temporary actions to support providers’ cashflow will be made at either a collaborative or local level, in line with individual councils’ approaches for considering supplier relief and following the Government’s Procurement Policy Note (PPN) 02/20: Supplier relief due to Covid-19.

Local authorities should ensure prompt payment to support providers’ cashflow over the coming months. In keeping with the guidance in PPN02/20, where feasible and appropriate councils should consider  temporary arrangements to pay providers quickly through automated or other bespoke payment mechanisms to provide a level of certainty around cashflow over the coming months.  Retrospective reconciliation can be carried out, where necessary, at the end of this temporary period to ensure payments reflect the level of services received. Providers should ensure that their own records are up-to-date to support reconciliation at a later date.

Providers may also want to consider the financial assistance available from the Government. A business support finder tool has been developed to help providers to understand what support they are entitled to.

Children’s placements

Cashflow is vital to providers of placements for children in care, including children’s homes, residential special schools and independent fostering agencies (IFAs). Providers require certainty over their income to ensure they can provide continuity of placements and support for children and young people in their care, while also supporting carers and meeting overheads.

Commissioners can support providers by offering a level of certainty in terms of planned payments to help them through this volatility. The fast-tracking of payment for outstanding invoices should also be considered, where this is feasible.

In relation to adoption, councils and Regional Adoption Agencies may wish to consider the early payment of the interagency fee for those placements agreed by virtual panels or ADM decision, on the basis that the fee is repayable if the placement does not proceed for any reason.

Sick-pay

Providers face increased cost pressures due to higher sickness absence rates among their workforce: they either have to pay staff Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or make sickness payments at a higher level than SSP because they have a contractual sick pay scheme (also known as an ‘occupational scheme’), which offer workers payments above the basic minimum amount of SSP, which is £94.25 per week.

Following the introduction of emergency legislation, employers’ liability for SSP now starts at day one rather than day four, and requirements for workers to self-isolate will further increase pressures. If providers need to backfill sickness absence to ensure continued delivery of support, this will represent a real cost pressure on providers. Councils should recognise this potential cost pressure and work with providers to identify ways to address and mitigate this.

Please note that employers with fewer than 250 employees may be eligible to reclaim the costs of SSP for sickness absence due to COVID-19.  The scheme refunds up to two weeks’ SSP per eligible employee who has been ill with the virus or has had to self-isolate; therefore, local government will not be expected to bear this cost.

Workforce availability

Providers are likely to face higher workforce absence rates, through medically-recommended self-isolation, sickness and family caring responsibilities.  Other factors, such as school closures, may exacerbate this issue.

Providers will need to be able to deploy their staff flexibly and may need to hire new staff quickly. They may face increased cost pressures from higher use of agency staff.  Providers and commissioners should work together to consider how to ease any such pressures and identify where additional funding is required to mitigate this.

Commissioners should also consider how they can continue to prioritise foster carer recruitment, including the timely processing of checks by other agencies.

Adjustment of support

Support may need to be adjusted given the current situation.  For example, timescales and statutory visits may be changed to meet the most urgent needs. Providers and carers may need to adjust the support they provide in order to meet changing needs, to ensure they are working in line with current Government guidance and to minimise infection risks.

Providers may need to make decisions in urgent situations where they have been unable to access the appropriate local authority decision maker. Commissioners will need to consider the circumstances under which providers have the authority to make these decisions and ensure this is clearly communicated.

If commissioners choose to retain decision making about changes to care packages themselves, they will need to have enough staff at the right level available to make these decisions rapidly, and have simple processes in place. 

Commissioners and providers should monitor official government guidance, for example around contact arrangements with family members, to identify areas where support may need to vary.

Where support has to be adjusted, providers should be clear with commissioners about the decision-making process, including risk assessments where appropriate, to evidence the need for increased funding. It is not unreasonable for providers to claim for additional management and administration costs, but we would expect providers to be reasonable in such claims and work with their commissioners when making these.

Infection control

Providers may face extra costs through the need for more personal protective equipment (PPE), through the need for enhanced cleaning, and through the need to adopt different working patterns to minimise the spread of infection. Providers may also face greater difficulty in obtaining infection control products, PPE, handwash and disposable hand towels, due to increased demand for them.

Commissioners can mitigate this through funding extra costs and through helping providers access PPE, for example using some of their own supply chain contracts. This assistance with access to critical products may extend beyond PPE.

Any stocks of PPE or other equipment provided by central government and held by local councils should be distributed equitably between councils and the independent and voluntary sector. Councils can help this process by issuing clear instructions to their staff about how such stocks should be made available to providers who need them.

Support for local authority commissioners

The LGA will continue to lobby the Government for the support and resources that councils need throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, for example additional funding and PPE. If commissioners have specific examples of cost pressures or resource shortages to feed into these discussions, please email coronavirus.enquiries@local.gov.uk

Throughout the outbreak, the LGA will be collating Government guidance, good practice, statistics and other information on our coronavirus information pages. These include information on:

We are also collating frequently asked questions around procurement.

The LGA operates a children’s services commissioning and procurement group on the Knowledge Hub, a network for commissioners to ask questions and seek good practice from their peers.

Please note: You will need to be a member of the Knowledge Hub to join the group. If you have any questions about this, please contact productivity@local.gov.uk