The Government’s announcement that Leicester is the first UK city to go back into full Lockdown are sensible when considered as a public health action. Just as the city was beginning to return to normal, it is frustrating that the lockdown restrictions are to be imposed again. Whether this could have been anticipated, however, is a question that needs to be asked quickly and openly, so that the public bodies that support people in Leicester can learn from them as rapidly as possible and adjust their response accordingly. Contrary to the government’s stock answer when it comes to questions raised about the pandemic response, now is the best time to ask these questions, because if find out that we are getting things wrong, then we can change our practices and behaviour to suit the situation. It’s essential that we are not be driven by a lack of accurate information, because this only leads to frustration or panic when circumstances go in an undesired direction.
Much of the government’s efforts to manage the Coronavirus pandemic have focussed on the national response, and the local provision of testing and tracing services has been marginalised. Local public health bodies have not been placed at the centre of the response. They have not been given the appropriate resources to independently act, they have not been empowered to make decisions that suit local needs. The result is that towns and cities that do not fit the pre-defined and centralised public methodology that the UK government thinks is needed, are prone to deviation and divergence from the expected response.
There is a lot being said about the distinct cultural and social differences that are relevant to Leicester, which make it difficult to maintain a single testing model. The needs of Leicester City Council, and the population that it serves, clearly does not fit within the singular model of a central government-run public health response. Likewise, the centralised communications and public health information model has clearly reached its limits.
According to the Leicester Mercury, Mat Hancock the Health Secretary, told the House of Commons on Monday evening that the following supportive measures will be put in place:
“First, in addition to the mobile testing units that I mentioned earlier, we will send further testing capability, including opening a walk-in centre. Anyone in Leicester with symptoms must come forward for a test.
Second, we will give extra funding to Leicester and Leicestershire councils to support them to enhance their communications and ensure those communications are translated into all locally relevant languages.
Third, through the councils, we will ensure support is available for those who have to self-isolate.
Fourth, we will work with the workplaces that have seen clusters of cases to implement more stringently the COVID-secure workplaces.”
Many people will have questions about each of these issues, and how they will be implemented, and what they will mean as they are put into effect. What is of concern here, however, is the third element of the government’s response, which is about the communications process.
The need to improve community communications has been a core topic of the Decentered Media Podcast for some time. Over the last couple of months these conversations have identified the need to change the model of public information and well-being communications. For example, the conversation with Jal Kang of Shrinker Digital details how his involvement in the development of localised, non-English language social media messaging process had the potential to extend and broaden the public health message in Leicester. Jal’s frustration at the time was that the communications model of the public authorities in the city was stuck in the mainstream transactional mode. This narrow mass-media communications approach, we agreed, ends up marginalising any innovative, decentralised and community models of communication. If messages can’t be made to fit the standard media and communications approach that public bodies use, then they are ignored and sidelined. There have clearly been wasted opportunities to communicate more effectively that need to be looked at again.
The question that has been discussed in the Decentered Media Podcasts for some time, is how do we shift community media from the periphery to the centre of public and civic thinking, planning and resource development? In reality, community media is run on a shoestring here in the UK. As the Public Interest News Foundation has argued in its Save Independent News campaign, ninety-five percent of independent publisher in the UK are getting no support from the government. In April, and according to the News Media Association, the government and the newspaper industry formed a “three month advertising partnership” estimated to be in the region of £30 million, to “amplify public information, campaigns and messaging in a style and tone more familiar to readers.” Obviously this has not had its intended effect in Leicester, where the number of people who don’t speak English as their first language is much higher than other places, where literacy levels are much lower, where in-work poverty and child poverty is higher, and where notable levels of poor health much lower than the national and regional profiles.
Clearly, the approach that is taken by community media advocates in Leicester, and the volunteers who support the community radio stations, along with the people who are using social media platforms to share their mutual-aid experiences, needs to be reviewed. We need urgently to discuss the challenges of what it means to live in a-typical communities. We need to discuss why community media remains marginal to the thinking of the public administrators and government officers that run the public authorities and the local services. Our communities need to be heard and listened to for what they have to say about their local social experiences, how they make sense of those experiences, and what they can do to improve and change those experiences.
It is frustrating to feel boxed-in like this, when we need to be talking directly in our communities with one another, so that we can help and offer mutually support one another. So that we can share accurate information in an accountable and responsible way, and so that we can learn to tune-in to each other’s needs. The gatekeepers and the public administrators that control the civic and public communications process have been playing a safety-first game. Understandably their instinct is to protect what they know. But what they can’t control is the way that people respond to and use the messages and communication channels that they are dependent on. The legacy approach is proving to be inflexible and insufficient nuanced to meet the requirements of our immediate adjustments. Going back to a Decentered Media blog published on the 17th March
“Lacking the resources of the major broadcast and news corporations, community media might, at first glance, be judged to be irrelevant to the alleviation of our present problems. This would be an unfortunate error and a missed opportunity. If we are to provide extra depth to the media support that people will need in coming months, we need to invest in our community media services.”
This still holds true, and needs to be acted on quickly if the limitations of the existing communications processes are not to be dealt with.