Community engagement and local lockdowns

Snapchat and ‘community ambassadors’ are helping councils communicate public health messages about COVID-19 to local residents.

Planning, preparation and community engagement are key to managing local coronavirus lockdowns, according to speakers at a recent LGA webinar on ‘Local outbreaks and living with COVID-19’.

Officers from Warwickshire County Council, Leicester City Council and the national test and trace service shared their experiences of preparing for and leading local lockdowns during the communications best practice webinar, attended by nearly 300 delegates.

Jayne Surman, Strategy and Commissioning Manager, Communications, at Warwickshire County Council, said social media was crucial to getting lots of public health messages out quickly to lots of different groups. 

The pandemic drove Warwickshire to try new platforms such as Snapchat, which proved a “fantastic channel” for reaching 13 to 19-year-olds. The council used it for mental health and safeguarding messages, as well as those about COVID-19.

Ms Surman also highlighted how local public health analysts can give insights into often “bewildering” local testing and outbreak data to help shape and target communications materials and messages. For example, Warwickshire created additional social media materials featuring men when it emerged that far more women than men were getting tested.

She flagged the help elected members can give as the “eyes and ears” in their local areas, and Warwickshire’s use of ‘community ambassadors’ – including faith leaders and speakers of particular languages – who have helped deliver public health messages to their communities.

Brian Lisowy, Communications and Marketing Manager at Leicester City Council – the first UK city to go into a local lockdown – also raised the importance of getting messages out to all communities, without making any of them feel they were being singled out. 

Messaging aimed at trusted community leaders and voices – for them to share through their own channels – was vital. Community radio stations proved helpful in this respect, with presenters translating messages into local languages.

“You can get as many messages out as you like from the council voice but the community has a greater impact in getting messages out and understood – and hopefully acted upon,” said Mr Lisowy.

The issue of community engagement during local lockdowns was picked up by his colleague Andrew Shilliam, Head of the City Mayor’s Office at Leicester City Council.

As part of its proactive community engagement, Leicester has been trying to understand the issues, barriers, constraints and some of the successes “as our communities consider them to be” when it comes to tackling COVID-19 in their areas, he said. 

Qualitative research undertaken with Public Health England and the Behavioural Insights Team points to financial barriers and issues with communication, enforcement and housing.

It was also important for residents to see progress was being made, and for there to be trust in what the council was doing. Engaging with trusted organisations, including faith and community representatives, was key to that, and the engagement activity has left the council with a “much richer picture of our communities”, said Mr Shilliam.

“It’s important to focus on positive things we have done as a city and a local authority instead of constantly telling people how they need to behave.”

The webinar also heard from Mary Thomas, of the NHS’s test and trace programme. Talking to areas that haven’t yet had a local outbreak, she said: “You can’t contingency plan enough…be really familiar with what’s in your local outbreak plan.”

Resources and presentations from the ‘Local outbreaks and living with COVID-19’ webinar are available at www.local.gov.uk/local-outbreaks-and-living-covid-19-13-august-2020.

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