The Olympic Games opened in London on Friday 27 July 2012 with a spectacular opening ceremony. Perhaps uniquely for such an opening ceremony, the event featured a tribute to the free health and related public services available for UK citizens – the UK National Health Service (NHS). The ceremony involved hundreds of volunteer performers who work in the NHS as well as some young people and children who are receiving hospital treatment. Many social workers are employed in the health service and provide a key link between hospitals and clinics and wider community services.
The London Olympics has been designed to be inclusive and the opening ceremony included many people with disabilities. The National Anthem was sung by the Kaos Signing Choir which includes singing and signing young people, some of whom are deaf.
Perhaps even more important for the social work profession are the preparations by social workers to make sure that services continue throughout the London Olympics so that vulnerable people have continued support. Preparations are also needed to ensure that services are ready to respond quickly to any social issues, crises or incidents which arise, bearing in mind that the city will have even more international visitors than usual – some estimates suggest around 4 million extra visitors over the two month period.
The areas most affected are of course in London, although there are Games venues around the whole country. Social workers around London have been preparing for the games for a long time. Additional staff will be allocated to mental health and child protection teams in order to be able to respond to crises and emergencies. Mental health social workers in London’s Olympic boroughs will be given bikes to cycle to community assessments during the Games so that they do not get caught in traffic problems.
Local councils have issued information to service users, service providers and the public about what to expect and how social services will respond in the event of need. One London borough announced plans to ensure that there can be a rapid response for the most vulnerable people in the community (e.g. living alone, with critical needs), in case their normal service is disrupted due to traffic problems around the venues. Staff are working from local offices within the area within walking distance so that we can provide a rapid response to any sudden changes of need. Another authority issued guidance for carers, including advice to stock up on food essentials and to be prepared for longer waiting times for doctor appointments.
Managers also have to anticipate security risks and community crises, given the high profile of the Games and political sensitivities in the UK. London social services are already used to responding to major incidents and dealing with security challenges, such as a major incident on the transport system.
Voluntary organisations, such as the Red Cross, have made contingency plans
There is a well coordinated plan for safeguarding children at London 2012 which covers the ‘Olympic Coordination Zone’ within East London, including four local authorities (Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Waltham Forest). The London Safeguarding Children Board (which coordinates child protection work across the whole of London) anticipates that the Games will attract significant numbers of visitors to the capital and may also attract vulnerable children, adults and destitute families into the Olympic Coordination Zone and/or surrounding areas, not only from across London and the UK but also from across the world. Such an environment may create an increase in youth crime / violence, child trafficking for financial and/or criminal exploitation, i.e. cash point crime, pick pocketing and illegal merchandise sales.
As a response to this unique set of circumstances, a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) has been established for any child or young person found with a safeguarding concern within the boundaries of the Zone. The aim of this service is to ensure that professionals (such as police officers, Olympic security personnel and Games volunteers) with concerns about the wellbeing of a child within the Olympic Coordination Zone are able to contact an LA children’s social care professional quickly. Through the SPOC arrangements, the four Park Boroughs, in partnership with the Police Child Abuse Investigation Command (CAIC) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), will aim to ensure that there is a child focused and proportionate response to any safeguarding issues that arise within the Olympic Park and surrounding area, including in relation to child athletes.
Some argue that major international sporting events attract trafficking in women and young people in response to the demands of the sex industry. Voluntary and campaigning organisations, such as Stop the Traffik and the United Nations Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking, have launched campaigns to draw attention to the human risks associated with large international events. The GIFT box is a piece of street art launched in London as the Games open. It invites people to come inside with enticing promises, only to be confronted with the horrific truth of human trafficking. With millions of people coming to London this summer the boxes are being used to raise awareness about human trafficking by: telling true stories of people who have been trafficking to or within the UK, offering a helpline and advice to those who need it, equipping people to spot victims of trafficking on the streets of London and beyond and inspiring people to stop traffickers operating where they live. However, whilst there is a lot of evidence about the reality of the human trafficking associated with the sex trade, studies of major sporting events have not identified evidence of large scale activity directly linked to sports events. Nevertheless, social workers in London are prepared to respond if cases are identified.
Finally, sporting metaphors are frequently used by theorists about leadership and ‘inspirational’ speakers. The chief executive of the London-based Social Care Institute for Excellence is a keen cycling fan and has suggested that the winning team in the recently concluded Tour de France can offer inspiration to social workers!
The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development highlights the crucial role of social workers in developing community cohesion and building human relationships. Social workers in London and around the UK have been anticipating the human and social demands associated with such a major event as the Olympics. Plans have been put in place which recognise the need to work in a way which respects and builds relationships. Social workers are ready to sustain local communities and engage with visitors from around the world, illustrating how the professional skills of social workers serve the community wherever people come together.