COVID-19: Essential Social Services Information

25 March 2020

This update provides detailed information about what constitutes an essential 'social service' and what this means, following recent Government announcements. This information relates to Oranga Tamariki and Ministry of Social Development (MSD) funded services. It also provides information on the combined approach that the Government’s social sector funding agencies will take to funding services and managing contracts during this time.

What is an essential social service?

Under the Government's COVID-19 response plan, Alert Level 4 allows for 'essential businesses and those that support them' to continue to provide the necessities of life for everyone in New Zealand.

For social services, four categories of essential services have been identified. The list below provides more detail on which contracted services fit within each of the four categories of essential services.

  1. Category 1: Where the social service is the only way for people to access food and other goods they need to live day-to-day (e.g. money management services (where an organisation manages living expenses on a client’s behalf), food banks, and delivery of essential goods).
  2. Category 2: A social service that provides and supports a place for someone to live (e.g. Supported Accommodation, Housing First, Residences, Bail Hostels, Night Shelters, Family Homes, Remand Homes, foster carers of children in state care, resettlement services for recent migrants and refugees).
  3. Category 3: A social service that supports disabled people to maintain critical wellbeing (e.g. disability services for those with high needs or very high needs – excluding disability employment services).
  4. Category 4: Crisis support for people who are unsafe (e.g. funded helplines, refuges and family violence crisis services, elder abuse services, foster carer support services, sexual violence crisis services, other social services for people and families in crisis, including youth).

A more detailed list of social services that sit under these categories can be found on our website. In compiling this list, we have needed to strike the right balance between meeting the essential needs of the vulnerable people in our communities, and the need to stop the spread of COVID-19 and reduce contact between people. We have deliberately kept the list of essential services tight to help protect the wellbeing of all New Zealanders. It is an initial list that we expect to update over time.

We have identified social service providers that we know will be delivering these essential services. These providers will be contacted directly with further information about what is required of them. If you are contacted, please reply immediately to let us know the extent to which you are currently able to perform the essential services identified within the Alert Level 4 restrictions.

If you have not been contacted by 12 noon on 26 March 2020, and you believe that you do deliver one or more of the identified essential social services, let us know by email at

Please tell us:

  • how you provide the ‘essential social services’ we have described, or meet an essential need in your communities during this time
  • that you understand and can operate within the significant restrictions on how essential services need to be delivered at Alert Level 4
  • about your current capacity and how you propose to operate the service.

List of essential social services

What does it mean if I provide an 'essential social service'?

The expectation is that, to the extent possible and without compromising the safety and wellbeing of those you are working with, you will deliver these essential services in keeping with the restrictions that come with Alert Level 4.

The overriding requirement will be to:

  • use the minimum viable workforce
  • have maximum hygiene protocols in place

This means that face to face contact will only be used in those circumstances where it is most needed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of those you are working with. In all other circumstances you will find other ways of providing support to tamariki and whānau, and those caring for and supporting them.

You will need to establish alternative ways of working to keep employees and the people you are working with safe. This means communicating at a distance using online methods (e.g. Zoom, Skype) and by phone. For your people who do need to continue to engage face to face, you will need to make arrangements that support safety, such as physical distancing, use of personal protective equipment, shift-based working, staggered meal breaks and flexible leave arrangements. The number of people having close contact with each other will need to be kept to the minimum possible.

We advise you to work through the processes you currently use to undertake your contracted services, identify any that would usually require face to face engagement and plan for these in the context of COVID-19 Response Alert Level 4. 

If you have questions or feel you cannot provide a service at the level required, please contact your contract relationship manager. We will work with you to address the issues you face.

What does this mean for other providers?

As a sector, we have a shared commitment to meeting the needs of vulnerable tamariki and their whānau. We want to collaborate with you to ensure the people we work with get through COVID-19. 

We want to facilitate the sharing of resources to ensure the needs of the most vulnerable are met.

We ask that you let your contract relationship manager know about staff in non-essential services that could be made available to meet the needs of other priority tamariki and whānau. We will then facilitate connections with other service providers in your area who may need to call on this capacity, including Oranga Tamariki service teams. You may already be sharing resources in this way and you should continue to do this without involving us if it is not necessary.

We want to ensure capacity is retained within the sector for when the alert levels drop.

It is essential that we sustain the capacity of the social sector workforce during this time so that we can reactivate existing services, and provide responses to the emerging needs, as the alert levels drop. If you have capacity after considering the opportunities to share resources, please remember that non-essential services should continue to be provided where they can be done safely and in keeping with the requirements of each alert level.

What flexibility and security do I have around my funding from government agencies?

Government agencies that fund the provision of social services have been meeting to align how they will support and work with their provider partners. This has included representatives from MSD, Oranga Tamariki, ACC, the Ministry of Justice, Corrections, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and others.

Further funding information