Newham is in East London, the site of the 2012 Olympic stadium. It is a highly dense and diverse borough with 75 per cent of the population from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, rich in cultural life but with many who experience economic challenges such as living on some of the lowest wages in London and high levels of overcrowding too.
In June 2020, after the first wave of Covid-19 in which Newham was badly hit, across Newham we knew we needed to strengthen our community connections to navigate the ongoing pandemic. How could we reach deeper into communities with complex, ever-changing advice and guidance, not just on Covid-19 safety, but mental health, money advice and anything else that matters to those communities? How could we also ensure we heard what communities were concerned about so we could be more responsive?
The solution was Newham’s Covid-19 Health Champions programme, which aims to have open and honest conversations with communities about the latest Covid-19 advice, the situation in Newham, what people are experiencing and what they need. We want to gather and share information quickly, responsively, and on channels that are simple to access and use (and if possible with humour too). Most importantly, the programme aims to do this with a conscious commitment to a shared approach with our residents rather than top-down. This is about a mutually respectful, equally valued partnership with our community.
As a council we and our partners bring public health expertise, resources to create easy-to-access information, ability to inform and influence more widely. NHS colleagues, GPs and others have been regular participants in the programme coming to share their expertise and answer questions. Abdul, Adyaan, Tania and all their fellow champions bring so much to the partnership: relationships with their neighbours, their fellow mosque, Gurdwara and church members, their co-workers, their friends, their schoolmates, the people they meet every day and those they care for. Most importantly, the champions are trusted by their community. If a champion sends something to someone in their network, it is likely that the person receiving it will pay more attention, trust it more and be more open to the content. Residents of Newham will say things to our champions they will never say directly to the council and they will listen to what champions say as well.
We try to bring this information together through regular communication and interaction on the channels that are now part of so many of our lives: twice a week Zoom chats, email and WhatsApp where we use broadcasts and groups to share information and to listen, learn and respond. We also use infographics to share information – and would not be able to do this without our amazingly responsive, flexible and hard-working designer.
It’s still early days and we are learning all the time. How do you create a resource bank of multiple infographics in 13 community languages that people will actively use? Keeping things up to date is a constant challenge especially when the situation is in constant flux, as is the case with the Covid-19 pandemic. How do we grow the community and ensure it is continuing to engage and include as many people in Newham as we can? What can we do to evaluate its impact so we can improve the model further?
Most importantly, we have to work to remain committed to the ambitions of shared power and collective action that sit at the heart of the work. This includes ensuring we value stories, feedback and snippets on WhatsApp as data, alongside the quantitative information we get from our tech systems.
The programme has already had an impact on how the council is supporting residents during Covid-19. For example, feedback from champions who piloted the NHS Test and Trace app influenced the timeline of the national roll-out, particularly around getting QR codes in venues before the app was launched to the public. More locally, the input from champions is informing how we support more people to get Covid-19 tests when they have symptoms and how we support multi-generational families if someone is positive. We also create messages in direct response to feedback including around scams and more recently myths being shared about the Covid-19 vaccine.
The value we are seeing is amazing. Champions regularly tell us that the information is making a massive difference to their communities, they send questions that come from across their networks and they share what they find valuable. Champions who are shielding say it’s a great way to actively participate in the collective response to COVID-19. Recently one champion shared that this second lock-down was made easier simply by having the champions group; it’s become a community itself.
We are constantly thinking about how to sustain the programme, to meet the expectations around engagement and pace that we have built up, to provide the right balance of information and to actively respond to the insights that come from the champions. This isn’t always easy; we don’t have unlimited resources. But we’re committed to seeing how this evolves.
We recently launched an informal network for others who are starting up similar projects. More than 30 local authorities have joined the network and we are looking forward to others becoming part of it. Together we are learning, improving and – ultimately – serving residents more and more each day.
In September I wrote the following letter to the CEO of Tesco. I am not surprised there is such a high number of cases in Newham people are very belligerent about the virus. Major companies need to take a lead in enforcing COVID protocol.
"Dear Mr Lewis
I was in East London and Essex last weekend, visiting family and friends, I was shocked at the level of non-compliance with regard to the wearing of masks in the store at this address:
346 Green Street, Upton Park, Plaistow, London, E13 9AP
I would say well over 50% of people did not wear a mask. To make things worse there is one common small entrance and exit to the store which is an corridor type area probably 7 foot square. Many of the shops in Green Street have signs that stipulate “Masks must be worn,” but the majority did not comply.
I am aware how fraught it can be for staff to insist on masks being worn but Tesco’s should play its part in reducing the risk of a national lockdown. Why is the exit beyond the self-service tills (on the right of the store from the road) closed? Why is there no security guard to insist on the wearing of masks? I expect there will be a spike in Newham before very long.