FEARS have been voiced that vulnerable children could be at greater risk during the lockdown.

Almost a fifth of jobs in Dorset’s child social services were unfilled before the coronavirus outbreak and experts warn the crisis could pile pressure on an already stretched system, with councils across England reporting high vacancy rates and reliance on expensive agency staff in their child protection operations.

New Department for Education figures show there were 43 full-time equivalent job vacancies in child and family social work in Dorset in September – 19 per cent of a fully-staffed workforce.

In the BCP area there were 29 vacancies, roughly 10 per cent of a fully-staffed workforce.

Temporary agency staff, who can be far more expensive for councils than regular employees, were covering 38 of the vacancies across both council areas.

Across England, there were more than 6,000 vacancies, a figure that has increased by four 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 coronavirus.

John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union, said social workers are already struggling with the effects of the outbreak, with many off sick or in self-isolation, meaning less qualified staff or unqualified assistants could be asked to perform statutory duties.

“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 practised in a while to say ‘can you come back to the front line and fill the gaps?’”

He added that some councils were already having to take steps to deal with the shortfall.

Moves include reducing weekly contacts with youngsters on child protection plans to once a fortnight.

Councils across England have reported problems recruiting and retaining staff in recent years, which the SWU blames on high workloads, poor management, and a lack of well-being support.

Social workers in Dorset had an average of 17.6 cases each in September.

That has increased substantially since 2016, the first year in which caseload figures were published, when it was 13.4.

The Department for Education says the emergency Coronavirus Act will help social workers continue their “vital role” supporting children and their families through uncertain times.

A spokeswoman said: “We are working urgently to address the additional challenges they face, including through our Act, which will reduce burdens on social workers and help others return to the profession.”

But the Social Workers Union says councils need an urgent cash injection for child services, as well as personal protective equipment to protect frontline workers while they carry out home visits.

Mr McGowan 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.”

Councillor Sandra Moore, Cabinet Member for Children and Families at BCP Council said: “We are committed to the safeguarding of vulnerable children across our conurbation and are prioritising our support to them during these difficult times.

"We are working closely with our partner agencies to provide a cohesive response when needed, and will continue to maintain sufficient levels of staff to provide the best care we can to those who need it the most.”

Dorset Council currently has 49 vacancies, 34 currently covered by agency staff.

Theresa Leavy, executive director for children's services, said: "We're here to help and protect our vulnerable children and families and understand that our sense of duty is even greater during the coronavirus outbreak.

"Our social workers are among the critical workers and are carrying out home visits safely, in line with national guidance, so they see children and support families across Dorset.

"For those children and families we are already working with, we have contingency plans in place for every child and are also mobilising our workforce to move into different roles to offer additional support should we have employees who are self-isolating or have coronavirus symptoms.

"We're also extending contracts for any agency workers who were due to finish working with us to make sure we have that additional capacity.

"Our Children's Advice and Duty Service is still running as normal. This team is on hand 24-hours-a-day and seven-days-a-week to support other professionals who have any concerns about a child.

"We are passionate about what we do and will continue to keep our children, families and foster carers at the heart of everything we do.”