When Matt Hancock announced on 19 May that a programme of surge testing and increased vaccinations would be taking place in the borough, we had already vaccinated some 130,000 of Hounslow’s eligible residents, around 48% of our total population. In spite of some surprise on our part that Hounslow would be participating – with seven other local authority areas – in helping to tackle the Delta variant, we welcomed the additional resources which would help us vaccinate the large numbers still yet to receive their vaccine.
My view, expressed publicly at the time, was that the surge commitment was a welcome addition to the significant work already being done by the council and our NHS colleagues. This additional resource would enable us to prevent further infection rate rises, and – importantly – to reduce the risk of hospital admission, but to achieve this we would need all of our residents to become part of the solution and get vaccinated.
The announcement, which came without any advance notice and was publicly described by Hounslow LBC leader Cllr Steve Curran as an example of Government not working in partnership with councils, was followed by further confusion when changes were made to travel guidance, also without warning. It required that we move quickly to operationalise Hounslow’s detailed final surge plans, and our new communications campaign, based around the unifying call to action, ‘Step Up For Hounslow’, was live across the borough just two days later.
Our operational plan mobilised pop-up vaccination clinics and mobile testing units across the borough and we were absolutely clear in our recognition of a particular need to reach Black and Minority Ethnic communities, with that priority heavily informing our decision-making.
Demand was clearly present: pop-up vaccination centres at sites like the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, and Hounslow Jamia Masjid and Islamic Centre accounted for up to 1,200 vaccinations each day they were open. It was our faith leaders in these settings who took responsibility, and were active participants in the planning, coordination, delivery and hospitality for vaccination staff and residents who attended.
At street-level, our communications and engagement campaign saw recruitment of teams of volunteers, not only to deliver and collect PCR home-test kits, but specifically to include people who could thoroughly explain and myth-bust in relevant community languages.
In advance of the Twickenham one-day mass vaccination event, more than 60,000 leaflets were delivered to target wards, translated into five key community languages. Three days of digital advertising through the Council Advertising Network reached 162,000 people, with 625,000 impressions. 11,000 people attended for vaccinations on the day.
Local NHS staff, representative of Hounslow’s diverse communities, fronted some of our social media work, contributing to 1.47m Twitter impressions in a month, (with #StepUpForHounslow trending nationally). We saw a reach of half a million on Facebook, and an equivalent number of Instagram impressions. Adverts on community radio stations seemed to drive queues at pop-up vaccination clinics, with one reporting a queue of 150 people before opening.
Stakeholder emails were sent daily to partners, members and MPs to provide operational activity and key statistics (reducing to twice weekly from week two) and our emails to residents acted as a daily reminder of the changing availability of mobile testing units and pop ups, while also seeking to reassure and provide support, for example on self-isolation payments
By the time the Government announced that our Enhanced Response (Surge) Area status would come to an early end, 53,000 residents had ‘Stepped Up’ and got vaccinated in just four weeks of Hounslow’s programme, bringing the total vaccinations tally to more than 251,000.
Senior Public Health London colleagues have said that our progress in Hounslow has to be seen as very encouraging, and a brilliant example of how effective we can be when we all pull together. We know that we now need to see that unity across London, with as many people as possible coming forward for the vaccine over the coming weeks.
For us, the Government’s decision recognised the incredible efforts made to ‘Step Up For Hounslow’ by residents, as much as by those delivering the programme. With our partners, Hounslow mobilised at terrific speed to deliver this excellent work, and it is because of the fantastic, committed response of residents that Government was able to bring our surge status to an early close.
We are now only too happy to play our part in helping others where there are lessons to be learned from our experience, and while our surge status ended a week sooner than originally planned, the hard work on the ground to get remaining residents vaccinated and PCR tested continues as part of Hounslow’s commitment to support the fight against COVID-19.
Kelly O’Neill is director of public health at Hounslow LBC