Purpose The COVID-19 pandemic has potential to disrupt and burden the mental health care system, and to magnify inequalities experienced by mental health service users. Methods We investigated staff reports regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in its early weeks on mental health care and mental health service users in the UK using a mixed methods online survey. Recruitment channels included professional associations and networks, charities, and social media. Quantitative findings were reported with descriptive statistics, and content analysis conducted for qualitative data. Results 2,180 staff from a range of sectors, professions, and specialties participated. Immediate infection control concerns were highly salient for inpatient staff, new ways of working for community staff. Multiple rapid adaptations and innovations in response to the crisis were described, especially remote working. This was cautiously welcomed but found successful in only some clinical situations. Staff had specific concerns about many groups of service users, including people whose conditions are exacerbated by pandemic anxieties and social disruptions; people experiencing loneliness, domestic abuse and family conflict; those unable to understand and follow social distancing requirements; and those who cannot engage with remote care. Conclusion This overview of staff concerns and experiences in the early COVID-19 pandemic suggests directions for further research and service development: we suggest that how to combine infection control and a therapeutic environment in hospital, and how to achieve effective and targeted tele-health implementation in the community, should be priorities. The limitations of our convenience sample must be noted. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (10.1007/s00127-020-01927-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.