This is a guest post by Louise Flintoft, associate director at Onyx Health.
The UK’s public health is in a precarious position. We’ve all seen in the news that the Omicron COVID-19 variant has been identified as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.
At the time of writing, there are still a lot of unknowns about the new variant. However, early indications are that it is likely to be more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and that our existing vaccinations are less effective against it.
In response to the uncertainty, the Government has announced a series of new measures to reduce the spread of the new variant. These currently include compulsory facemasks for public transport and retail, expanding the booster jab programme to all UK adults, new requirements PCR tests and isolation for people entering the country, and ten-day quarantine for people in contact with an infected person
The last cycle of lockdowns and compulsory COVID-19 restriction prompted one of the biggest acts of civil obedience in our peacetime history. With new restrictions looming, the Government will need to communicate behaviour change again to avoid a potential crisis. At Onyx Health, we are healthcare communication specialists and have some ideas about how we use the power of PR to re-engage the public.
Fighting COVID-19 fatigue
Let’s be honest; we’re all sick and tired of the pandemic. The success of the Government’s initial vaccine rollout and the removal of official legal restrictions earlier in the year had led many people to conclude that it was mission accomplished. However, the threat has never gone away, and it risks getting worse again.
One of the biggest dangers from a public health communication perspective is that complacency, and an unwillingness to take the potential new threat seriously, derails the effectiveness of the new rules. Re-engaging the public will be essential to make the latest changes work in practice. There is also a balance to be struck between taking things seriously and avoiding mass panic. This needs a strong, emotionally resonant message that the public can connect with.
Encouraging people to get masked up and booster jabbed to save Christmas can link behaviour change to a shared desirable outcome. Last Christmas was tough for us all. We all want to make this year’s festive season better than the last.
Helping our healthcare heroes avoid a winter crisis
The NHS is always close to the nation’s heart, but this is especially true during a public health crisis. It is arguably the closest thing we have to a national religion. During the first lockdown, the weekly clap for healthcare workers brought the nation together to thank those frontline staff who risked their lives to help us through the pandemic.
Today, the NHS faces a perfect storm of a new COVID-19 variant, the seasonal spike in winter flu cases and a general public fed up with the pandemic. Calling on people to follow the rules to help our healthcare heroes has the potential to reconnect people with that shared sense of solidarity we saw at the beginning of the pandemic. People may be willing to go the extra mile to help those who got us through the COVID-19 crisis by caring for our friends and loved ones.
Accelerating booster jabs and getting people doubled dosed
The booster jab programme was originally targeted at the elderly and vulnerable to increase their immunity to COVID-19. This week, the Government announced that it will be extended to all adults over 18 in the UK. Problems beset the initial rollout of booster vaccines for complex reasons, including the rollout’s speed, limited uptake, and confusion over eligibility. The expansion of the programme magnifies the scale of the communication challenge.
There are specific audience demographics that require specialised targeting. Increasing the immunity of those most at-risk through medical education is a key priority. We need to reach out to the elderly, vulnerable and underrepresented groups using community groups, local champions and NGOs to foster grassroots engagement and build trust from the ground up.
Another big issue is getting younger people doubled dosed. The figures show that people aged 25-29 are more vaccine-resistant and statistically less likely to have taken up the offer of a single or double vaccine dose. Targeting young people through viral content, social media influencers and pop-cultural icons provides part of the answer to create a generational mindset change. Getting through the latest stage of the pandemic requires a renewed collective national effort; as communicators, we need to do our bit.