COVID-19 communications: Living with COVID-19: local clusters and outbreak control

As this next phase of the pandemic develops, it has become increasingly clear that local government will play a pivotal role in controlling the spread of the virus through effective local cluster and outbreak control.

As this next phase of the pandemic develops, it has become increasingly clear that local government will play a pivotal role in controlling the spread of the virus through effective local cluster and outbreak control.

Alongside high-profile cases such as Leicester and Blackburn with Darwen, councils up and down the country are taking rapid, data driven, measures to identify local infections clusters and outbreaks at a very early stage and intervening to prevent them worsening.

Communications and engagement are a vital part of this process, potentially the most important part, and the relationship between public health teams and communications teams is fundamentally important. Essentially, for the purposes of local outbreak control, the functions must operate as one team.

Know your areas of risk and watch your data

Communications leaders and health communications leads should have as good a knowledge of emerging health data as public health teams, and should ensure that they are in receipt of this data on a regular basis. It is also important to work with public health colleagues to pool local knowledge and assess areas, settings and communities of risk in your local area and ensure that you have a bespoke communications plan for any high risk areas, alongside your template outbreak communications plan.

Ensure that you are scenario planning, both with your public health teams, and within your communications teams. How would you deal with an outbreak in a local factory or primary school? Who would your stakeholders be, locally, regionally, and nationally? How well do you know the setting and its communities? What channels would you need to use and how quickly could you access them?

Establish your channels and partnerships in advance

When it comes to local outbreak comms, speed is absolutely of the essence. Having an effective and accurate knowledge of and easy access to local, and hyper-local, information channels is vital to enable a rapid communications response. Most councils have excellent digital channels, but with substantial gaps in their reach, especially amongst vulnerable groups. Door to door distribution in affected areas is powerful and reaches everyone. Many councils no longer have easy access to such channels, especially if they don’t produce a regular print publication.

Setting up contracts for ad hoc deliveries with local distributors in advance of any local incidence of COVID could be one solution, or working with other council teams, such as estate cleaners, to see if they can deliver hyper-locally could be another. Most GPs surgeries have the ability to text all patients on their roll. Work with your local CCG or GPs’ Confederation to ensure that you have knowledge of practice boundaries and easy access to those systems.

Ensure that your relationships with key community leaders, the voluntary sector, businesses, and other stakeholders are strong, current, and easy to mobilise. 

Community cohesion

When a cluster or outbreak arises in a particular community or setting, there is a real risk of communities or businesses becoming stigmatised. The fear of this carries a risk of outbreaks being concealed. Councils have a very important role to play in managing community relations and community cohesion, and reassurance of effective groups. This will involve very careful messaging, engagement with local media and stakeholders, active management of misinformation on local online forums, and building a reputation for becoming the repository of reliable and trustworthy information on the local COVID-19 situation.

Test and Trace

The NHS Test and Trace system is a vital tool in the battle against Covid-19 and councils have an important role to play in maximising public understanding of and engagement with the system. Research in London shows that whilst most people have heard of Test and Trace, many have very little understanding of what it involves. YouGov research for the Greater London Authority (GLA) in June 2020 showed that 46 per cent of Londoners would not know how to access a COVID test and that BAME Londoners and over 65s would be least likely to know. Insight from a number of boroughs showed a high level of distrust from residents in sharing data through the system and that could lead to an unwillingness to engage with it.

This was particularly true of younger people and some minority communities. London is launching a citywide ‘Keep London Safe’ campaign, focusing in the first phase on clear messaging on how to get a test, and in the second phase on building awareness of and trust in the contact tracing system. Councils should carry out local insight work to inform communications, and understand specific local barriers to engagement and local areas should consider developing their own collateral to support and enhance the national messaging.