Walsall was the first borough in the West Midlands to identify and map a case of the South African (SA) variant not linked to travel. Around a week later, an additional SA variant case was identified in another town ward and a second enhanced testing programme was quickly rolled out.
Once the geographical area had been agreed for both areas within a couple of hours the public health team produced a geographical area profile. This profile underpinned the evidence and intelligence-based planning and implementation of surge testing.
Walsall MBC’s overarching approach to its rapid roll out of surge testing was one of community engagement and reassurance. Logistical operations that must physically reach up to 10,000 people in just a few days need a clear plan and chain of command. Partners and providers must understand the ‘ask’ and what part they play in the shared division and direction of this labour.
Therefore communications and engagement are central and just as important as the huge logistical operation, to get people on side, to win hearts and minds and empower the community to make the right decisions about getting tested, tracing and containment. Whilst local authorities and health partners are skilled in this sort of delivery area, early trouble shooting must identify the best physical delivery for the task. To manage this Walsall looked to its communities.
We are a small metropolitan borough in the Black Country that has long established relationships with our volunteer networks. Getting them on board and quickly trained via our resilient communities directorate was a key priority. They had intensive training over a few short days in the delivery of door-to door kits. Volunteers had to learn PPE compliance , digest a carefully constructed script explaining the ‘testing ask’ and why it was needed. It may seem a little thing, but never underestimate the power of interpersonal and soft skills when giving face-to face messaging. Volunteers were the front face of the council, they needed to reassure, inform and engage, therefore they wore clear ID, showed PPE compliance and always reassured those postcode residents - especially the older or more vulnerable ones that absolutely no access into their homes was needed.
Whilst door-to-door volunteers were our eyes, ears and boots on the ground, ‘communications’ were also pivotal to community engagement and a meaningful uptake of the tests.
As news of the rapid testing programme broke Walsall quickly became the focus of a lot of national and regional media interest. In one day alone I was approached by 35 separate broadcast news and media outlets asking me for commentary and a position statement on the emergence of the variant in Walsall.
This level of media engagement is not achievable when you are delivering public health priorities, however, as a director of public health and far as the variant was concerned, my first role was to first inform, myth bust and reassure the public. As the story broke on that first day, I engaged with three national broadcasters including Radio 4, Sky News and Channel 5 to try to give a strategic viewpoint and our response in Walsall. Thereafter, I focused on our local media and regional media because this was part of our own communications strategy to get priority messaging to our key WS 2 postcode audience.
Our corporate communications team also issued a combination of rapid and targeted council messages via dedicated tweets and social media on where testing was taking place and how people could access it.
This operational messaging automatically signposted to a dedicated postcode tracker on the council website, so people could self-direct and gain clearer understanding by exploring Frequently Asked Questions.
This was an overwhelmingly successful operation, mobilised at pace and at scale.
Some key points for others wishing to, or taking part:
As soon as possible, be really clear on your geography and model for delivery. Having worked in two different areas now in Walsall, with two different communities, knowing and understanding the community in which you wish to work is vitally important.
Working through local partner, community groups and community leaders helps to quickly establish the different communication and engagement channels in which to get good take up in the community. This requires time prior to any need, so investing and working alongside the communities in which you serve is important.
This process has furthered our local understanding of working with our communities and given us greater insight on how as an authority we could be working alongside them in the future.
Stephen Gunther is director of public health at Walsall MBC