Keeping pace with a pandemic

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When local, national and global situations are changing daily, it’s a challenge, to say the least, to ensure that the content of your website accurately reflects those situations at all times, and gives up-to-date information on how the impact of those situations is being dealt with. We can honestly say 2020 has thrown more than our fair share of work our way than usual!

The storm(s) before the storm...

In Shropshire, we’d been particularly badly hit by Storms Dennis and Jorge in February, causing widespread flooding, damage and general misery to many of our communities. Throughout that period of time dealing with the impact of, and fallout from, the floods, a virus reported to have started in a wet market in China was gradually moving higher and higher up the news agenda. People wondered whether it would reach the UK. Then, when it did, we wondered how widely it would spread, but as it moved from officially being an epidemic to a pandemic, we began to realise that our experiences of dealing with the floods would be a dry run (if you’ll forgive the somewhat inappropriate expression) for a bigger, much bigger, challenge.

Best laid plans

Shropshire Council regularly conducts exercises that involve staff dealing with a fictional ‘big issue’. This undoubtedly helps should a horrific event such as, for example, an act of terrorism happen. Whilst utterly harrowing for those involved, such attacks are, regrettably, not unprecedented, so an action plan can be developed from experiences and best practice elsewhere. In the case of coronavirus (and yes, no prizes for guessing that Covid-19 was where we were heading with this missive), nothing like it has happened in the UK in living memory, so there’s a great deal of trial and error involved in finding an approach that works; in our case an approach that works in terms of giving people the help and information they need online quickly and easily.

One section to rule them all

As everything hotted up, and the national lockdown approached, our initial task was to create a section of our website exclusively for coronavirus, find a prominent place for it on our homepage, populate that section with links to the national information that was flying out at a dizzying rate, and ensure that our pages and links remained up to date. This involved a few members of the team being more-or-less fully employed looking after this section for several weeks.

As time passed (seemingly very, very quickly), the content of the section evolved. The links to Gov.UK and various NHS/PHE pages remained (although updates slowed slightly), and we started spending time working with our colleagues in Trading Standards, Business Support, Adult Social Care, Schools and Education and many others adding a Shropshire-specific flavour to the content we were publishing. We were also able to find some time to tidy things up a bit, removing duplication and presenting the glut of information in as clear and easy-to-use a way as possible.

We divided the content up into manageable chunks: public information, social care, business, education, weekly updates on infection rates in the county, and useful resources such as toolkits, and posters in a variety of languages. We added and constantly refreshed service-specific newsflashes within the site, covering areas as diverse as births, deaths and marriages, benefits, council tax, libraries, waste collection and winter wellness. We worked with our Comms team to ensure that a concomitant social media campaign was pushing out messages and information consistent with our web offering. We also established close working relationships with staff given special responsibility for the pandemic, which was invaluable in ensuring that our information was the latest available.

But did it work?

Generally speaking, all went to plan. The coronavirus section passed 100,000 page views some time ago, with coronavirus-related pages elsewhere on the site pushing that figure considerably higher, and our business community used our pages to access information on grant support that has kept many of them afloat in these almost impossibly tough times for commercial enterprises.  

With the virus still seemingly some way from flatlining, and a vaccine not yet available, Covid-19 is still obviously our highest priority, as would be expected from something that still utterly dominates every conversation being had across the country, and every news bulletin. Even the Brexit juggernaut has been relegated in the news to the final slot usually reserved for someone from Dorset who claims to have spotted a unicorn.

However, in the same way that other news stories exist, and that British people will always find a way to squeeze the weather into any conversation, we still need to continue with our non-Covid programme of work, as well as keeping on top of the reactive stuff that crops up in volume every day. We’ll get there.