COVID-19: Making public messages clear in more than 30 languages

By Adrian Chapman | 03 April 2020

When the Prime Minister instructed us to stay at home for all but essential reasons, it was the most solemn and far reaching directive to come from a government in a generation.

The message was clear to many – we must stay at home to save lives and to give our NHS the best chance possible of helping everyone who needs it.

But of course, the message would not have been clear to everyone, in particular those people in our communities who struggle to understand English.

In Peterborough and parts of Cambridgeshire there are diverse communities – in Peterborough alone more than 100 languages are spoken - with many people who cannot read or understand English.

It is our role, as the local authority, to ensure that as many people as possible understand the very important messages coming from the Government. By doing so, we would help to slow the spread of the virus, reducing the number of deaths.

There were written translations of the public health messages, but even these don’t make the messages accessible for all.

So what did we do? In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough we have spent many years building close links with our communities and developing relationships with people from many different nationalities and backgrounds.

We called on those people to read a public-health approved script in their own language and record it as a video blog so that we could share it with others.

The response we received was immediate and very supportive. Within 48 hours we’d received 15 translations, including one from a Latvian actor staying with friends in the area before the lock down who was temporarily stranded. By the end of the first week we had more than doubled that figure and the number continues to rise every day.

Many of the people who so willingly helped us by recording video blogs have already used them individually – during the broadcast of Friday prayers in Peterborough mosques for example – and have offered to do further recordings for us too.  This is something we are investigating to ensure we are reaching everyone on our patch who is shielding and vulnerable and in need of food and medical supplies.

People have been sharing the messages on our social media sites and we’ve been asking other organisations to use them widely to reach as many people as we can. Cambridgeshire Police officers, for example, are playing the translations on their mobile devices when they are on the streets meeting people who are not following the stay at home guidance.

We want others to use them too, to help people in communities across the UK to understand the very important public health messages. They are all available to view and share at www.peterborough.gov.uk or www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk

At a time like this, we all have to raise our game to communicate in a way that reaches as many people as possible. It’s what we are doing in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough as we know that it will save lives.

Adrian Chapman is service director communities and safety for Peterborough City Council and Cambridgeshire CC

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