Waltham Forest has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help slow down the local rise in cases, the council launched a Stay Safe Champions scheme. First out on the streets, and now online, council officers and local volunteers have been directly engaging with residents, with the goal of informing, reassuring and supporting them. In parallel, our Play Safe Champions have been out on popular playgrounds to make sure children can safely access outdoor spaces and exercise.
Waltham Forest has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout December and January, the borough consistently had higher rates of cases per 100,000 than London and England. This has been especially concerning, because as one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country, we know our population was more at risk. In parallel, our residents were suffering from the various restrictions, in many cases losing income, or struggling to safely access green spaces to benefit their mental and physical health.
We have focused our approach on informing, reassuring, and supporting residents. Up until London was placed in tier 4 in mid-December, a group of volunteers and council officers, called “Stay Safe Champions”, were out on the streets to engage with residents. They were present in busy town centres, and in the wards with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, informing residents of how to stay safe, the latest guidelines, and the financial and practical support they could get from the council. They also distributed free face masks because we know this is an important part of the solution and we don’t want any of our residents to face barriers in being able to access them. Over 70,000 have now been given away to date. Between October and December, our Stay Safe Champions visited over 50 locations around the borough and engaged with residents at least 3 times each week.
After London was placed in Tier 4 and residents were asked to stay at home, the Stay Safe Champions adapted. We encouraged residents to sign up to be virtual champions. We provide them with the latest information about COVID-19 via e-newsletters, WhatsApp and Zoom sessions. They then share this information with anyone in their communities, however they want. Finally, they let us know what is and is not working, so that we can adapt our approach to make sure the information reaches everyone. We currently have over 300 Virtual Stay Safe Champions who have links to over 500 hyper-local communities, such as faith groups or even street WhatsApp groups.
Alongside the Stay Safe Champions, we recently launched the 'Play Safe Champions'. We know the importance of children getting some exercise outdoors, and the challenge it represents for those who do not have access to a garden. The Play Safe Champions are present in the most popular playgrounds around the Borough, reassuring parents, offering advice, making sure the area is not too busy, providing information and guidance, and giving away free face masks. The Play Safe Champions are redeployed council staff, who have all been DBS checked.
This approach has meant that we were able to directly interact with many residents, and giving them immediate practical support such as a free face mask. The Champions have been visible on the streets and playgrounds, raising awareness of guidelines but also of the council work to support residents.
How is the new approach being sustained?
Since lockdown we have maintained appropriate levels of face to face engagement, encouraging residents to continue to adhere to the national guidance and take up the local testing capacity available within the borough. We have also included ‘Virtual Stay Safe Champion’ engagement within our programme, using the learning from our physical programme to develop and maintain a programme of regular webinars, discussions, WhatsApp threads and e-newsletters.
The feedback from our physical and virtual engagement has informed our service delivery and ongoing communications and engagement approach. We have improved the messages we share with all residents using the case studies of those we have spoken to during our engagement. And our engagement has highlighted issues we can address and explain within our other mass communications channels.