Hertfordshire County Council has successfully targeted a number of the marginalised groups included on the government’s at-risk list. Outreach work with the local traveller community was particularly successful with the public health team working with key influencers in the community to engage people through social media.
From static sites to mobile units
When rapid testing first became available Hertfordshire County Council set up two static testing sites in its main towns, Watford and Stevenage. These were initially used by people who could not work from home during the lockdown in early 2021.
But as access to rapid testing expanded, Hertfordshire decided it needed a more flexible, mobile service. In the spring three transit vans were converted into mobile testing units equipped with a marque so they could be dispatched to locations across the country. Staff were employed on short-term contracts to provide the mobile service.
The initial focus was on neighbourhoods where infection rates were high. But from the summer the council’s public health team decided to target the groups that were listed as at risk by the government.
The Department of Health and Social Care list incorporated both those who were disproportionately impacted by COVID and under-represented in terms of getting tested. This included ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, low income households and traveller communities.
The work with the traveller communities, recognised as one of the hardest-to-reach groups of all, was led by Public Health Project Manager Emelie Frampton.
“The traveller community is very tight knit and the big thing is gaining trust. Our traveller team put me in touch with two sisters known as the Caravan Queens. They are big on social media in the traveller community so were very influential.
“I went to meet them in person and talked about the importance of regular testing to keep the community safe. They were great. They did a YouTube and TikTok video for us which went viral.”
The two stars of the video were the Mac sisters, Lizzy and Caitlin. They appeared jointly, explaining how easy it was for people to get tested and why it was important, pointing out to their community people could be infected but not have any symptoms, while regular testing also helped Hertfordshire’s public health team keep track of the way the virus was spreading.
The video included details of where to go to get tested as well as showing how the testing kit worked. “It has been made so easy to get tested,” Lizzy says in the video. “It is really important you come forward.”
Alongside the social media push, the public health team and council’s traveller team arranged for the Bishop of Westminster to come and talk to the traveller community. Ms Frampton said: “They are very religious and that paved the way for us to run a pop-up testing service at a local church. We did supervised testing and handed out rapid tests.”
More than 100 tests distributed at the event and since then the community has accessed another 600. “We were delighted with the response,” added Ms Frampton. “It has really opened doors with the community and I am now in regular touch with the Caravan Queens. That should be of great public health benefit in the future. I supported HCC’s traveller team to make arrangements with the COVID vaccination team, but there are others things we can work together on in the future, such as childhood vaccinations.”
‘We’ve strengthened our relationships’
Other events have also been held targeting different groups. For example, the mobile clinic attended the Herts Pride event in the summer handing out nearly 800 rapid tests. They also attended a migrants and refugees football match and “Fun in the Park” events which were aimed at low income households – more than 1,000 tests were distributed over four days.
The team has also worked with other council-commissioned services, including The Living Room, which provides support to people with drug and alcohol dependencies, as well as services working with rough sleepers and homeless people.
“We ran pop-up clinics at the Living Room, offering testing, handing out kits and explaining how to use them. One of the crucial things to do with this sort of outreach work is the preparation. I’ve gone to meet people in advance to discuss the best way to run the pop-up offer,” said Ms Frampton.
There were occasions though where pop-up clinics were not necessarily the best option. For example, the council worked with Communities First, a voluntary sector organisation which runs a network of local food banks. Nearly 20,000 rapid tests were distributed via this route.
Public Health Programme Manager Jeni Beard said: “It would not have made sense for us to try to get out to every food bank. By partnering with others you can have a much wider reach. The work we have done has really strengthened our relationships with community partners like this. We have now wound down the mobile service as well as the static sites. But I think what we have done over the past year will hold us in good stead in the future. Strong relationships have been built.”