An update on Southampton’s COVID-19 response so far and our priorities for the future
In a normal year, we publish an annual report from the Director of Public Health covering the work of the Public Health team.
But this hasn’t been a normal year. So we thought we’d do it a bit differently.
Rather than write a report which will sit on our website gathering virtual dust, we sat down with our Director of Public Health to tell Southampton’s COVID-19 story in an in-depth interview.
Watch below as Dr Debbie Chase talks about Southampton’s response to COVID-19 since March 2020 and the priorities of the Public Health team looking forward. You can also read a summary of what we covered below.
This interview was recorded in May 2021.
To switch on subtitles, hit the ‘CC’ button in the bottom right of the play bar.
First response – Southampton steps up SHOW
The first days and preparation
The first case of novel coronavirus was officially recorded in Southampton on 15 March 2020. But coronavirus was of national and international concern earlier in the year. It is likely that infections linked to international travel had already taken place in Southampton’s communities before the first recorded case.
The Public Health team in Southampton were already starting to prepare in early 2020 by reviewing plans with public service partners within the city and across the region, including our port and universities. There were still many unknowns on how it spread, how to combat it and its potential impact on people’s health.
First national lockdown
On 23 March 2020 the Prime Minister announced that the UK would go into lockdown. We wrote to all residents with reassurance and with details of how to access support as we rapidly redeployed staff and resources to protect and support people through the difficult times to come.
Southampton steps up
Following lockdown many people found themselves isolated and in need of support for daily essentials like groceries and access to medication. To ensure no one was left behind we rapidly set up a Community Support Hub centred around the Guildhall.
From here council staff redeployed from areas such as Events, Planning and Transport joined forces with an army of volunteers from partners, the local NHS and mutual aid groups to make sure that though we were apart, nobody faced the pandemic alone. This network of community and voluntary organisations played a pivotal role, working with public services, to ensure we were able to reach people with essential support.
We worked with local GPs, adult care teams and voluntary sector partners to build a clear picture of who may be in need of support and to reach out to provide help.
This offer was accessible through a dedicated support line managed by the Customer Services team at the council. The Customer Services team worked closely with Southampton Voluntary Services who, via SO:Linked, connected many residents to the different voluntary, community and faith sector support offers available in the city. This ensured support found its way to those that needed it, and also provided important social contact for people in isolation for long periods.
Leading the local response
Although the first national lockdown gradually eased into more localised tiers of restrictions in the summer of 2020, it was clear that COVID-19 remained a threat.
To mobilise the local response we developed our Local Outbreak Control Plan working with partners across the city. It describes the measures we all need to take to reduce our risk, and the interventions and processes that are in place to ensure that we prevent spread of COVID-19 infection as far as possible, and can rapidly identify and respond to local outbreaks of COVID-19.
To oversee its delivery we set up the Health Protection Board. This is chaired by the Director of Public Health and takes its membership from across the public and private sector including the local NHS, police, business representatives, the voluntary sector, the universities and many others. The board continues to meet to discuss and direct our response to the pandemic in Southampton.
This is partnered by the Local Outbreak Engagement Board which is chaired by the Leader of the Council. It provides an opportunity for the public to join and ask questions about the local response and to ensure discussions are held in the open and decision-making is transparent.
Residents have been key to our response. The high levels of adherence to national policy and public health measures by Southampton residents has meant that we have been able to keep our COVID-19 rates lower than may be expected for a city with our demographic and high levels of deprivation.
Second wave and the impact on our communities SHOW
The second wave
In the Autumn and Winter of 2020, Southampton – along with the rest of the UK – saw a staggering increase in cases. This was attributed to the emergence of a new variant first detected in Kent which became the dominant strain in circulation in the UK. This new strain was more transmissible and as such meant that infection rates climbed rapidly.
The second wave hit Southampton and the rest of the country even harder than the first, with a dramatic increase in hospital admissions and sadly many further deaths.
All the measures put in place to support people in Southampton remained in place and we reaffirmed our commitment to do whatever it takes to protect and support people as we entered a second national lockdown.
The impact of COVID-19 on Southampton
The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down. It continues to do untold damage to lives and livelihoods and is far from over as we see the crisis escalating in other parts of the world.
Southampton has seen 16,481 infections and 391 deaths with coronavirus*. Each one of these deaths has been a tragedy. It’s easy to forget this is not just a number – each represents the loss of a precious family member or friend. There have also been countless more people blighted by the illness and hospitalised and suffering with the long-term effects of the infection.
This is in addition to the impact of lockdowns on the economy and on our daily lives, with consequences for mental health, employment and education that we will be dealing with for years to come.
*Data for deaths up to 25 June 2021 and cases up to 3 July 2021.
Test, trace and isolate SHOW
Southampton leads the way with mass testing trials
In June 2020, we joined with the University of Southampton and the University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust to develop and trial COVID-19 mass testing technologies. Weekly, rapid-result saliva tests were piloted with 14,000 community and school participants.
The city took a leading national role in evaluating regular COVID-19 infection testing for households at each stage in the pilot programme, allowing us to assess the feasibility of carrying out home-testing on a large scale.
The home-based saliva-testing pilot has helped pave the way for more regular testing schemes which, along with the NHS Test & Trace programme and national efforts to encourage self-isolation, vaccinations, are helping to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Setting up walk-in testing centres
In September 2020, we worked with the Department of Health and Social Care to set up four walk-in testing centres within easy reach of Southampton neighbourhoods. The testing centres give residents immediate, easy access to getting tested for COVID-19 if they have symptoms and are part of a national network of sites.
The current sites – which now also serve as pick-up locations for symptom-free testing kits in the afternoon – are located in Shirley, Woolston and at the University of Southampton’s Avenue Campus in Bassett Green.
Local test and trace teams
In December, we partnered with NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England to launch a contact tracing service, Southampton Test and Trace, to help stop the spread of COVID-19, save lives, and protect the NHS and our local health and social care services.
Our call handlers contact residents that have tested positive for COVID-19 and who the national test and trace service has not been able to get through to. They then provide them with self-isolation advice, identify who they may have been in close contact with, and help them access support where they need it. The service has played an important role in making contact with vulnerable residents and ensuring their needs are met.
Shirley steps up to take part in surge testing for the South African variant
In February 2021, our Southampton Test and Trace service worked with NHS in the SO15 postcode area of Shirley to identify and isolate cases of the South African COVID variant.
As part of the exercise, we wrote to postcode residents, deployed a Mobile Testing Unit (MTU) offering PCR tests (polymerase chain reaction) and issued them home test kits with instructions.
In a remarkable show of unity, thousands of residents came together to take the tests and help us better understand this variant. The information gathered from this and other variant outbreaks will help us better prepare for future outbreaks of COVID-19, better understand variants, and may contribute to the development of further vaccines.
One in three people with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, so could spread the infection without realising it.
Starting in March 2021 our teams have worked to set up symptom free testing sites across Southampton at dedicated sites and in community pharmacies. The symptom-free tests are LFDs or Lateral Flow Devices which give a rapid result within 30 minutes.
We have also been rolling out pop-up test collection sites including one at Westquay shopping centre and at community locations alongside vaccine clinics. This ensures the message about the importance of testing reaches our whole community and that access is easy and convenient.
Testing will enable more people to continue to work safely, helping businesses and services to be more productive and efficient. The more people we find who have the virus and then self-isolate, the better our chance of breaking the chains of transmission and returning to a more normal way of life.
COVID-19 vaccine rollout SHOW
The roll-out of vaccines has undoubtedly had a huge impact and saved hundreds of lives in Southampton already. We’re pleased to see that take up has been generally very high across the board, and we will continue to support our partners in the local NHS to roll out the life saving jab.
Despite this we are seeing inequalities in take up, with some groups being less likely to take up the offer than others. The reasons for this are complex, based on many varied factors including age, cultural sensitivities, levels of trust in government institutions and access to quality information.
We have been working to make sure that good information on vaccines is available to everyone in their native language. We worked with a local community interest group to create and promote a series of videos about vaccines which feature trusted voices from within Southampton’s diverse communities.
We’ve also been looking at innovative ways to ensure the roll out of vaccines reaches every community. Successful pop-up clinics have already taken place in local mosques and temples and we have more planned. We will continue to work with communities to ensure the roll out of the jab continues at pace.
Communications and Community Engagement SHOW
Community Champions shine
One of the great positives to emerge from the pandemic is the community spirit that has helped us pull through. Whether that be from showing our appreciation for key workers, volunteering with local groups or simply looking out for our neighbours.
Our Community Champions scheme was set up in September 2020 to harness this community spirit. Our network of COVID-19 Community Champions are made up of people who live, work and learn in the city, all playing their part to keep communities safe by sharing important information and advice whilst providing the Public Health and Stronger Communities team with feedback.
This has become a vital part of the response as we seek to dispel myths and combat misinformation and conspiracy which are an ever-present danger to our efforts to get back to a more normal way of life.
COVID Marshalls on patrol
In November 2020 we were awarded a grant from the Home Office to introduce COVID Marshalls in Southampton. We moved quickly to get a team in place whose role was to engage, explain and encourage members of the public to follow COVID-19 guidelines.
They’ve had thousands of interactions with people and responded to hundreds of reports from concerned residents and business owners. The outcomes from these interactions have been overwhelmingly positive. They’ve played a key role in the reopening of the economy by supporting businesses to manage queues and one-way systems, helping to prevent mixing between groups in public spaces and providing advice on how to wear face coverings.
COVID-19 innovation projects
Southampton City Council has funded a number of community-led COVID-19 Innovation projects, recognising that community, voluntary and faith sector groups have crucial links with their communities and can support public health measures in creative ways. A few of the projects delivered so far include:
- developing COVID-19 messages in different languages by trusted members of the community
- social media videos by young people working alongside the University of Southampton LifeLab and Southampton Children's Hospital Youth Ambassador Group
- community training and online engagement events.
Crisis communications during a pandemic
Access to good information at the right time continues to be of paramount importance to our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is the role of the Communications team to provide timely updates that are accessible to the entire population, but that also seek to reach our most vulnerable residents. At the onset of the pandemic our communications team joined colleagues from public services across the region via the Local Resilience Forum Media Cell to ensure important messages were co-ordinated across the region and that they were being understood by our diverse populations.
The Communications team also play a pivotal role in linking people with the support they need, ensuring people are aware of the implications of restrictions on their daily lives and that they are taking actions to keep themselves and their families safe.
This work has taken many forms – from weekly updates on the latest situation including local case numbers, to getting in touch with over 15,000 people asked to shield and translating and distributing leaflets and posters.
We launched the Keep Southampton Safe campaign as a vehicle to reach our diverse population with important messages on safety and changes in guidance. This work continues to be vital as we focus on reaching people of all ages and ethnicities with information about vaccines, testing and reopening.
Next steps and recommendations SHOW
COVID-19 has not disappeared. Though we can be positive about the situation in Southampton as cases continue to fall, we know that this can change quickly. And as we’ve seen here and are now seeing in other parts of the world, the consequences can be devastating.
This means we must continue to prioritise our response to the virus, preparing for further waves and protecting the vulnerable. To do this we will continue to:
- Support the roll out of coronavirus vaccines, with an emphasis on seeking to address inequalities in uptake to ensure every community benefits
- Support the roll-out of testing – both symptomatic and symptom-free – as a vital tool to keep outbreaks of the virus under control and break the chains of transmission
- Work with our partners across the board to ensure that settings – particularly those most at risk – are well prepared for further outbreaks
- Keep track of the prevalence and impact of the virus on Southampton’s communities through an analysis of all available data and use that to inform our decision making
- Communicate in an open and transparent way with residents, visitors and businesses, promoting testing, vaccine uptake and public safety messages
COVID-19 has put a spotlight on existing health inequalities in Southampton that mean people living in more deprived areas on average have a significantly lower life expectancy and suffer from worse health outcomes across the board. We will ensure taking steps to tackle this inequality is at the heart of our work going forward.