On Wednesday 10th February, Hertfordshire County Council and other local agencies completed their ‘surge testing’ pilot in the EN10 area of Broxbourne for the new South African variant of COVID-19.
In just over a week (technically eight full days) since the Secretary of State’s announcement at 5pm on Monday 2 February, Hertfordshire’s local partnership had managed to get almost 10,000 residents to complete a test. 92 positive COVID-19 results have been found to date and zero South African variant (although further laboratory tests are still be ongoing). This was an overwhelmingly successful operation, mobilised at pace and at scale but what were some of the key communications lessons learned?
Hertfordshire County Council had come together with Broxbourne District Council, Fire and Rescue, Police, Trading Standards, Volunteers, as well as Essex County Council and Essex Fire and Rescue to form ‘Operation Eagle’. They had decided to focus initially on a community hub model, with over half of residents collecting and then dropping off home testing kits from two nearby community centres. Local marketing and press materials sought to build on the well-established ‘Play your part’ branding, and leaned heavily on community spirit by encouraging all adult residents to get a COVID-19 test over a time limited period of two weeks to instil urgency but not panic. The council also tried to use plain English text and easy to read maps for residents to choose between the community hubs and mobile testing sites.
The community testing model was supplemented with a timely and detailed letter drop from the well-known Director of Public Health, that arrived at the majority of doorsteps on Tuesday 3 Feb – the day after the initial announcement. This was followed by a door to door operation led by Police and Fire Officers later in that same week. Extra mobile testing units were also well used in the nearby area for local residents – with and without symptoms.
As well as the direct letter from the Director of Public Health to carefully explain the background reasons for the surge testing and the direct instructions for residents to follow, the council created a dedicated webpage. Through google analytics, it saw over 45,000 visits – with a significant number of these coming as a result of social media links, as well as over 35 pieces of press coverage that HCC was involved in, including BBC Radio 4 Today programme and ITN, as well as local and regional media.
In total, the targeted social media messages had a reach of 396,899 people with paid for advertising and messages to local Facebook groups combining for good effect. Initial awareness messages from Central Government neatly dovetailed with local reassurance about the process and what residents should look out for next, as well as updates on timings of door to door visits and closures etc due to snow and icy weather. HCC also had to respond to the potential risk of fraudsters operating in the area and worked with the police and trading standards teams, to put out an extra press release and social media content on this subject.
The communications team also set up a virtual ‘Town Hall’ webinar called ‘Ask Jim’ (our Director of Public Health– as a key engagement opportunity to ask direct questions - and promoted it across all key media, including the initial letterdrop. This meant that almost 500 residents were able to have their own concerns raised and many of these were answered, with further Q&A materials available afterwards for a wider audience.
In order to address the large number of press enquiries being received by the media team, a virtual media briefing led by the Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire, Jim McManus and Executive Member for Public Health and Prevention, Tim Hutchings was arranged. Key contacts were invited to join the briefing, which featured an overview of the situation and roll out of the surge testing and also provided an opportunity to get across the key message of reassurance.
Since the end of the project, HCC produced specific content to mark the end of testing, including: a press release, social media, video content and a stakeholder update. This sought to thank residents for playing their part, recognising partners and staff for their hard work and highlighting the success of the exercise by sharing data as a way of closing the feedback loop.
Evidence and results
From initial survey responses (130 local residents), the council could can see that over 60 per cent of residents heard about the news about local testing from this regional and national media, although half of residents got the really detailed information they needed from the direct letter and 40 per cent from the local webpage. Interestingly, 29 per cent got this level of information from the county council’s social media and 23 per cent from local facebook groups (which the council had actively engaged with from the start) - compared to just 14 per cent from each gov.uk and national or local media.
The council also know that the vast majority of residents (over 90 per cent) found its information either very or fairly useful and a similar proportion thought the process of getting tested was straightforward. Those who did find it difficult, struggled most with the online registration of home kits and booking a test online. Improvements could also be made to the door to door instructions and how to do a test.
Residents also appeared to be most motivated by ‘doing the right thing’ (76 per cent) although almost as high was the safety of friends and family; or the safety of their community; protecting the NHS; and stopping the spread of the South African variant (all at 70 per cent). Less important was knowing that their neighbours had had the test (14 per cent) or avoiding a longer lockdown (44 per cent) – although this latter was still significant and did come through initial social media comments.
Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire County Council, said: “Our residents in the EN10 area of Broxbourne have been absolutely fantastic. They have helped bring infection rates down, and they have proactively used the testing routes available to them.
“Communications and engagement has been right at the heart of this process from day one, and were just as important as the huge logistical operation, to win hearts and minds. They responded to changing circumstances at pace, often able to anticipate potential issues in advance."