As the nation begins to exhale a large audible outpouring of relief, it is beginning to become increasingly clear that the rollout of vaccines will become the prime focus for communities right across the country at the beginning of 2021.
Local government should be quite rightly enormously proud of its response in ensuring that communities were not left isolated during the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, however the emergence of a vaccine will place an additional burden to ensure communities are informed, reassured and encouraged to play their part in the effective roll-out. It cannot be simply left to the NHS, local GPs or ad-hoc private sector organizations to undertake a complex logistical exercise which appears to be currently prioritised by age and health needs.
It will be imperative to get the co-ordination, planning and communications aligned before embarking on one the largest logistical operations that will have ever been undertaken by our public services. The recent Local Government Association call for councils to be able to act alongside the NHS on vaccine distribution was reassuring to hear and should be fully endorsed and supported by both local and national politicians, with not just rhetoric but also appropriate funding.
Empowerment, trust and accountability are essential ingredients in creating great teams and responses. While command and control structures are clearly essential in the early days of a crisis, the ability to coordinate resources, implement effective communications and focus upon local priorities are the essential ingredients to maintain the pace and appropriateness of a prolonged response or rollout. Therefore, I am sure local flexibility and responsiveness will be a key requirement for all the organisations working to deliver a successful vaccine programme.
While observing the response to the pandemic, I have often been frustrated by the error being made time and time again by national bodies to apparently reject local and regional knowledge, skills and capacity to support a national framework and focus.
Now, will not be the time for political point scoring, but will be the time for leading, promoting and encouraging local delivery through the maximisation of the vaccine take-up. If recent reports are to be believed, it is estimated that around 20% of the population are saying they will refuse to have the vaccine. This could well slow down the rollout, disrupt the easing of restrictions and continue to place vulnerable people at risk. Therefore, local community leaders will be key to providing a reassuring voice.
I fear what will start with optimism could quickly deteriorate into local confusion if there is not effective use of local coordinated communications to ensure communities are informed, organised and reassured.
A clear ‘trip hazard’ will once again be the interpretation and restrictions put in place in respect of the sharing of data, systems and skills. If local influencers and advocates are shut out then it is much more likely that vulnerable people and groups will become even more isolated and disengaged.
Clearly the strengths that councils bring include a unique access to key local assets and infrastructure which will enable the fast rollout. It seems to get lost that local government within the UK is envied across the world for its ability to organise and deliver national elections which is based upon effectively ‘popping-up’ polling stations to engage right in the heart of the community. The scalability of this approach combined with the use of leisure and community centres should not be underestimated especially as the rollout requires a more targeted approach.
During this pandemic there appears to have been the tendency to always go straight to the big solutions, which have the adverse impact of making things feel remote and at times unreachable. Drive-through testing stations in particular, while innovative and logical to some, have become barriers to others. Breaking the enormous task down into bite size chunks will be essential during the rollout of the vaccine, especially if we want to promote high engagement and take-up.
The role of local government through its talented staff, elected representatives and influencers should be fully utilised as I believe they will once again provide the key to both an efficient rollout and a quicker route to normality.
Allen Graham is the former chief executive of Rushcliffe BC, founder of Circling Squares and faculty member of Leadership Communications