My heart goes out to those poor people diagnosed with Coronavirus, families that have lost loved ones and everybody trapped in hotels, ships and towns across the world. Although the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock has said he has drawn up his "battle plans" with no stone left unturned, if ministers and health officials cannot contain the virus, as seems very likely it inevitably will spread. The clock is ticking.
Information will be key. At the moment everybody is being cautious - testing the waters - with more information being dripped out almost on a daily basis - trying not to alarm people. I think it is a good approach at the moment - but things may change rapidly as the number of cases rise. What happens when it's officially declared a pandemic- who will talk to the public then? According to articles in the media, Ministers appear to think that the 43 Local Resilience Forums (LRF's) covering the UK will be responsible for coordinating local information with the Government and NHS providing national public health campaigns.
It becomes even more complicated because national organisations will also be giving their advice privately to their members and networks from Health England to the Local Government Association. In my experience - this advice is sometimes conflicted. I am also not sure about the LRF's, whilst they have an important role behind the scenes coordinating activities and bringing organisations together they are poor at communicating ( because they are regional and not particularly local) and have previously only focused on the big agencies - ignoring many of the smaller charities and local providers.
The Government's also suggesting social distancing measures - what does this mean and how will this play out in the real world. Can people afford to stay at home? Council's and supporting charities caring for the vulnerable will also be worrying about how they will maintain essential services if staff do stay away.
Yes- there will be national health campaigns. They will be very important but could very easily create a panic - with people hoarding food, as we have seen recently in Italy with bare shelves in the shops. If there is a pandemic people will want answers to hundreds of local questions. Is my granny OK in care? should I take my children out of school? will I get paid if I self-quarantine, what is the council doing to protect me? What happens to local economies? How can my business be helped if my customers stay at home? Will the council suspend business rates? The list is endless.
Social media will be awash with these questions and thousands more. There will be countless online video swamping the internet as the impact of such a change will be felt locally, at home, in the work place, in retail centres - everywhere. Local radio and newspaper reporters will not pick the phone up to to the LRF, or the Government- they will ring their contacts in local councils and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG's).
As many local government communications departments have been cut to the bone, as part of paying the price for austerity I am not sure how they could deal with something of this magnitude -effecting every facet of life. I remember the last flu pandemic and how difficult that was - and at the time we all had more resources at our fingertips - and a vaccine.
Local NHS communications teams could easily be overwhelmed, without more support and your local council communications team, could be faced with communicating almost 24/7. Not to do so would leave a vacuum for the most outrageous social media comments to gain credence.
Therefore, my ten-point wish list for public sector communicators is:
1. The virus is contained and we can all breathe a sigh of relief (hurrah) or at least delay it into the summer months (not so good but better than an outbreak now) - when the floods have receded, the NHS is not under winter pressures, and a vaccine could be closer to development. It also buys more time to prepare. I think the Government have done a good job to date.
2. Everybody should support communicators in the NHS. They are under intolerable strain at the moment and will be on the front line for months. I worked with local NHS communicators during the last flu pandemic and I remember how overwhelmed they were. Give them a hand. I hope that they are not too proud to ask for help.
3. Prepare now. Build partnerships and dust off your contact lists. Creating new partnerships will be essential if the workload is to be shared. Every agency will need to work together on something like this. My experience is that local government generally have excellent local networks from charities to transport providers and chambers of commerce.
4. Engage with your LRF. I think we should play to their strengths. They do have an important role - planning and coordinating responses and ensuring consistency when responding to questions. Although they don't have local knowledge they provide an excellent network with private messaging systems across a wide range of larger agencies. I hope they extend their reach to many smaller, important charities and recognise that this needs to be a collaborative effort.
5. Larger councils should support communicators in charities, local housing associations, transport providers and agree consistent messages. I know this is a big ask as some of you are dealing with flooding. But my personal experience is that there are huge benefits of supporting many smaller agencies especially when communicating with the most vulnerable- who may only have personal contact with a limited few- often the people you least expect.
6 The Government should share their plans confidentially with trusted communicators in the public sector. I have previously dealt with public sector crisis and despite playing a key role in local government I remember often being surprised by what is put out nationally. Sometimes it conflicts with local messaging- which is confusing. Perhaps this is a role for the LRF's to help iron out local messaging.
7. Councils should strengthen their approach to social media. Social media will be critical to well-being especially if people self -quarantine. Information will be key. Many councils have now employed social media specialists (hurrah) - and these people are clued up but there are others who still do social media on a wing and a prayer. So my plea to Council Leaders, Chief Executives and Financial Directors is whilst there is a little time, please dig into your corporate pockets and find the additional staffing.
8. The local media are engaged from the outset and brought " Into the tent". Historical animosities need to be set aside (but not forgiven). I know many of you have been burned by salacious headlines and lack trust in some journalists but now is a time to work more collaboratively. I am told most editors will be reasonable in these circumstances (fingers crossed).
9. Remember this could go on for weeks/months, - possibly through the holiday period - so think about staffing. It's not a good idea to burn out individuals or lose time delaying in responding to inaccurate comments on twitter to allow rumours to gain credence and traction. Wider partnerships and freelance help will be important. There is a limited pool of good people so get your options sorted.
10. Respond promptly to questions and be open and honest with your answers. The public can spot an evasive answer - miles away. Keep talking, to colleagues, partners, the Government and above all the public.
I hope that as part of their battle plans I hope that the Government inject more resources into the public sector to assist. And not just focus on the national picture.
Despite my concerns - I have absolute faith in local public sector communicators. No matter, what is thrown at them, no matter the funding cuts they have endured they will rise to the task.