COVID-19 communications: LGA and LGcomms webinar on vaccine communications

On Thursday, 22 January 2021, we held a webinar on vaccine communications in partnership with LGcomms. Communications and engagement will be crucial to the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. As more vaccines continue to be delivered, this webinar looked at how councils and their partners can effectively communicate with all residents on programme.

We were pleased to be joined at this webinar by speakers Simon Enright, Director of Communications at NHS England, Dr Michelle Constable, Head of Behaviour Change Unit at Hertfordshire Council, and James Sorene, Deputy Director of COVID-19 Vaccine Communications at DHSC.

Simon Enright expressed the NHS’s interest in finding out more from councils about what is working and what is not working locally. He reminded the audience of why we need a vaccine – COVID-19 kills people, patients are filling hospitals now at an alarming rate. He spoke of their work to push back against people claiming that it is not a problem, by allowing cameras and reporters into hospitals to show the reality and the pressures. Many councils have been supporting and adopting this approach, one example being Liverpool City Council who were given direct access to ICU.

Simon shared some statistics that council can use when trying to counter misinformation or reinforce the scale of the problem (correct to 21 January):

  • Every 30 seconds in England the NHS admits a person with COVID-19
  • In September, 500 patients were in English hospitals with COVID-19
  • By November, 9000 patients were in English hospitals with COVID-19
  • By Christmas, this almost had doubled to 17,000
  • Today, this has more than doubled again to 35,000 people
  • At least one quarter of those receiving the most critical care are under 55
  • 140 people are vaccinated every minute

The development of the vaccines, manufacturing and deployed speed has been a huge success. Whilst it’s not perfect, it is incredibly important. The Government is seeking to vaccine the first four priority cohorts by mid-February. Those in the cohorts represent 88 per cent of deaths from COVID-19.

Why are communications and engagement so important?

It will provide and reinforce our residents’ confidence in the vaccination programme. Simon encouraged council comms team to reinforce the NHS’ message about the process: the NHS is contacting people. There is no need to contact them. One key barrier, he said, to vaccine update is that many want to see someone get vaccinated before them. We need to reassure them that it’s okay. Council communications teams can also overcome this and build confidence by showing people, as much as possible, from a range of backgrounds getting vaccinated.

James Sorene from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) also stressed how communications have been and are saving lives. By getting our comms right, we can save a lot of lives.

When thinking about messaging, we should never stop considering the reason that we are persuading and asking people to get the COVID-19 vaccine. All evidence points to the vaccine stopping severe disease. It can stop hospitalisation or death. It is the best way to protect yourself and other people from COVID-19.

On the topic of cohorts, James stressed that once all nine priority cohorts represent 99 per cent of all deaths from COVID-19.

What can local government communicators do?

  • Utilise years of experience of public health outreach and your Directors of Public Health. This is their bread and butter; they know what works and what doesn’t
  • Share learnings as much as you can, particularly around vaccine hesitancy
  • People want to learn about the vaccine – explain it to them
  • Don’t be afraid to delve into the statistics to provide reassurance

DHSC has identified five key worries of people around the COVID-19 vaccine and how to counter them:

  • Side effects – possible side effects, most of which are mild, can be found on the NHS website
  • Ingredients – no animal products or eggs were used
  • Speed at which is was developed – this can happen easily when it’s the world’s collective top priority, with huge investment and lots of risks to developers. There were robust, extensive clinical trials required in order for vaccines to be approved
  • Were people like me included in trial? – clinical trials had good representation
  • Fertility – there is no evidence suggesting it affects fertility

When asked on death statistics for different cohorts, attendees were encouraged to look at the Government’s vaccine delivery plan which includes more information on prioritisation and delivery. Public Health England’s Green Book also includes more detail on those at risk, clinically extremely vulnerable and more groups.

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) engagement

The Cabinet Office has already rolled out a paid for campaign, which is specifically targeted at BAME people and communities. Resources in different languages are also available on the PHE campaign resource centre. There has been a letter produced by NHS England, inviting adults to get vaccinated with information included in different languages.

More materials are being created by Government on vaccine hesitancy, which will not be Government-branded. More materials are also available on the Department of Health and Social Care’s Google Drive.

Local approached adopted include sponsoring content in community newspapers, radio and TV.

It’s most important for councils to show people, and a diversity of people, getting vaccinated. We must understand our communities and work with them to overcome any challenges.

Where people will go and how they will be contacted

There are currently three ways people are getting vaccinated. This will help to ensure that no one will get missed.

  • Hospital hubs. The Pfizer vaccine is used in hospital hubs, which focus on vaccinating staff, contacting them directly and through local networks. Local authorities will have a relationship with their local hospital hub, and this is the clearest way for those working in social care to get vaccinated.
  • Primary care networks. Local groups of GP practices. They will invite the patients on their lists who fit the criteria of the first four cohorts.
  • Vaccination centres. Drawing from GP lists, they will send letters to all those within 30-45 minutes of the centre and are in the cohorts.
  • For those who are nervous about ravelling to a centre and do not answer their letter, a GP will contact them. Those who are housebound will also be contacted by GPs.

How to reassure people they are not being left out?

Local authorities can now access more granular data which can help to show progress. There is also still some stime to go until mid-February and the Government’s target date. There is a lot to do, but the NHS will get to everyone.

Communicating behaviours after getting vaccinated?

People who have been vaccinated must still observe Government guidance and social distancing. A leaflet is given to everyone who receives a vaccine which communicates this. Healthcare professionals should reinforce this message, as should vaccine centres.

During this webinar we also heard from Dr Michelle Constable, Head of Hertfordshire County Council’s Behaviour Change Unit, on encouraging vaccine take-up and tackling misinformation. You can see Dr Constable’s full presentation and a written case study on the LGA website.