Merton’s Community Champions – supporting the transition to life beyond COVID-19

As life in Merton returns to relative normality, Community Champions are helping ensure it can be lived safely and fairly – by everyone.

In 2020 more than 160 people in Merton stepped forward to become Community Champions. During the most intense phases of the pandemic they met weekly, online with the borough’s public health team and the NHS, to get the latest information and share messages with local people.

As an ongoing dialogue with our community, it was fabulous

According to Barry Causer, Merton Council’s public health lead for COVID-19 resilience: “We met every single Wednesday at 12 noon and 7pm throughout the pandemic to give the champions an update on the data and the latest guidance – the rule of six, for example. Our champions would ask questions and their insight helped to inform our COVID-19 response. As an ongoing dialogue with our community, it was fabulous and something we are going to continue.”

The scheme proved effective. In a survey of the champions, almost half (47%) said they managed to attend every meeting, with 95% sharing information onwards to family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues, faith networks and more.

The council is seeking to extend the reach of the champions

In a next phase of the project, the council is seeking to extend the reach of the champions. Barry explained: “We want more champions. That’s important to help us transition to living safely and fairly with COVID-19.”

The champions will keep talking about ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus; the importance of vaccination, ventilation, good hygiene and being alert to symptoms of respiratory infections. But they will also support wider recovery, such as by connecting people to long COVID support and access to therapeutic treatments, which are important for those who are at highest risk of becoming unwell.

Although most people recover from COVID-19 in a few weeks, around 2.8% report long COVID symptoms, which persist for more than four weeks, post-infection. A long COVID service has been developed to support patients with on-going needs. Take-up has been good but, says Dr Doug Hing, clinical lead for the service, “We are working to increase awareness in all communities and to reach into neighbourhoods, by working with our champions to have these conversations and signpost people to the right service.”

We know that there is real anxiety from some of our residents

The living safely and fairly with COVID-19 phase of the pandemic hasn’t come as a relief to everyone. For those who were previously shielding or people living with certain cancers, for example, a world without enforced use of face coverings or universal testing is quite frightening.

Says Doug, “We know that there is real anxiety from some of our residents. Suddenly there are no rules telling people to stay at home, even if they’ve got COVID.”

People who are at the highest risk have access to lateral flow tests at home so that, if they have any symptoms, they can test immediately. A positive test result will be followed up by the NHS with access to COVID-19 treatments.

“These treatments can help some people manage their COVID-19 symptoms and reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill,” says Doug. “They are a key part of living safely and fairly with COVID-19, so we want our champions to go out to communities to talk about them.”

Funding for the programme comes from a £485,000 grant from the Department of Levelling up, Housing and Communities. A significant proportion of the grant is being passed onto voluntary and community sector partners to support the programme.

The fund is also being used to spread the word that vaccines are the most effective way of protecting people from the virus and the effects of long COVID, with a specific focus on the east of the borough where vaccine take-up has been lower.

Asha’s story

Asha Newsum (pictured above) joined Community Champions early in the programme. “Before the pandemic, I was supporting initiatives overseas associated with the internationally agreed sustainable development goals. Then everything stopped. Community Champions was a great way of engaging locally through a pandemic.”

She explained: “You’re helping others, but you’re also helping yourself, especially for people like myself. As this scheme is multi-disciplinary, multi-age, multi-ethnic and it’s local, you can integrate effectively and direct efforts where there is greatest impact.”

Says Asha, “What I like about the champions is you get very good communications from the council, and you can feedback your concerns and ideas, including about the effectiveness of rules and guidance. Sharing information with my church group, other voluntary groups, friends and family is a pivotal role appreciated by many.”

According to Asha: “Restoring confidence among the vulnerable and elderly continues to be a challenge. Nevertheless, I have noticed people in their 90s going back to church, so that’s an amazing achievement. Two months ago I’d have said they’ll never go out again.

“Now the post-pandemic role of Community Champions is moving to a different and interesting phase requiring more integrated and wider engagement across different stakeholders at the local level. I continue to attend meetings every fortnight as they are a source of learning and sharing.” 

The council is currently appealing to businesses, education, social care and voluntary organisations to get involved in the Community Champion network by nominating a representative. To find out more email public.health@merton.gov.uk