Surrey County Council: Living with COVID-19

​​​​​​​Surrey County Council found itself in unknown territory when the first UK-transmitted case was identified in the county in February 2020.

Since the national lockdown was eased this summer, the county has gone without local restrictions. Instead, the council and their partners have focused on managing local flare-ups or ‘mini fires’, with their response dictated by their Local Outbreak Plan.

The initial response

Surrey is a big place - there are 1.3 million residents in the county, one county council and 11 district and borough councils. The county council has 23,000 employees and a communications team of 24. When the first UK-transmitted case was identified in the county on 29 February, the council quickly realised it had no plan in place for responding to COVID-19. One of the early successes of the comms team was creating an effective top lines brief. It wasn’t complicated or resource-intensive, simply created using Microsoft word. At a time when there was no Public Health England (PHE) data or dedicated government website presence, the toplines brief was the main trusted source of information for members, colleagues and stakeholders in the county.

In the immediate response phase, the council ran a successful campaign to generate much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies, with businesses across Surrey who donating over 70,000 items. In one weekend alone, the council made 10,000 calls to shielding residents.

The council and local partners were in a good starting position, with the comms cell of the local resilience forum (LRF) already established. The group had a history of working collaboratively and partners across the county were well represented. Partnership working was a key part of the county’s response and this was reflected in the branding - #SurreyTogether. Assets were created so that they should be tailored locally.

Local Outbreak Plans

As national lockdown measures were eased, the council was tasked with putting together a local outbreak plan and accompanying communications plan. The key aims of the comms plan are to communicate the NHS Test and Trace advice and guidance to maximise awareness and compliance, thus helping contain and reduce the spread of COVID-19.

1. Amplify the national Test & Trace campaign through local channels with tailored messages for key audiences

2. Ensure a clear understanding of Local Outbreak Plans among key stakeholders

3. Facilitate a rapid response in the event of local outbreaks

The key principles of the council’s communications messaging are to:

  • Motivate people with symptoms to participate in contact sharing and if contacted to isolate
  • Reassure people NHS Test and Trace will safely ease lockdown and return to normal life. Encourage hygiene and social distancing
  • Alert People In the event of local escalation. Focus on guidelines, restrictions, support updates
  • Create formats, language variants, audience relevant

Due to the way that COVID-19 spread through the county, the council has found itself faced with ‘mini fires’ or local flare-ups of the disease. Its strategy has been stressing prevention, rather than cure - we all have our part to play to prevent a stringent local lockdown. There is now a comms protocol in place to enable a rapid response if there is a local outbreak. As the situation and public health response continues to develop rapidly, Surrey’s comms plan evolves. The communications approach is split into three areas:

  • Phase 1: concentrating on amplification of national NHS Test and Trace and Public Health messaging and prevention
  • Phase 2: informing residents of rising rates of infection and the need for extra vigilance.
  • Phase 3: alerting residents to high increases in infection rates, resulting in local interventions and restrictions in their area.

The council has adapted its channel use to ensure they are reaching as many residents as possible, particularly those who may be older or more clinically vulnerable. Using Google targeting for ads meant that the council reached about 76 per cent of residents with their messages, even those without social media. 145,000 residents have signed up to the NextDoor app, one that the council had previously not explored.

Andrea Newman, Director of Communications and Engagement at Surrey County Council spoke about their approach at a recent LGA webinar. You can find Andrea’s presentation containing more detail and examples on the LGA website.