When the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the UK, things started escalating pretty quickly.
As part of our corporate research programme, our team typically have a number of research projects on the go at any one time, across a diverse range of topics and all at varying stages.
However once life as we know it started changing around us, we realised we were going to have to sort out our priorities, and fast.
As researchers in a local authority, we’re interested in the lives and experiences of our residents. A lot of our projects are aimed at trying to better understand people’s lived experiences, needs and behaviours, in order to inform policy and services.
It’s not every day a global pandemic comes along, so we felt it was pretty important that we got some research activity going quickly in order to understand the impact this was having on our residents at a local level.
This obviously involved stopping other work and projects that were already in progress, re-prioritising, and re-focusing our efforts.
The team undertook a rapid evidence review to explore the impact that the crisis had in other countries, and we started to take a central role in building the organisation’s understanding of the emerging risks, issues and impacts of COVID-19 on Essex and its population.
This required a cross-organisational approach, and engagement with other teams and services within ECC to understand what work had already been started, what was in the pipeline, and who was best placed to lead on what.
Our team includes Public Health intelligence specialists, who quickly began working with Public Health and Data & Analytics colleagues to develop a COVID-19 risk and vulnerability mapping dashboard. This aimed to identify which of our residents were most at risk, so that we could work together with our partners in local district and borough councils and voluntary organisations to support the most vulnerable in Essex.
The dashboard was made publicly accessible and shared with Public Health England and East of England local authorities, and some districts were also keen to recreate something similar at their local level.
The team also modelled COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalisations, critical care cases and deaths, and established a robust surveillance regime to bring health data together in one place. This helped to provide a single view as the outbreak developed, and to understand its impact across different groups (e.g. BAME groups and deprived communities) to inform planning going forward.
We’ve also been assisting with the Essex Coronavirus Action Support Facebook group, a collaboration between ECC, Public Health, and local Facebook groups. Group membership rose rapidly (currently at around 37K members), with questions about coronavirus and the latest government measures coming in thick and fast from residents.
Our team have been supporting with reviewing and theming these comments on a daily basis, to make it easier for the Facebook admins to identify prominent areas of concern and prepare answers and FAQs.
As well as listening to what residents were talking about on social media, it was also important to listen to emerging research.
In those first couple of months it seemed the world had gone bananas for research, and every other day we were sharing yet another new survey or paper with each other.
It would have been easy to drown in this sea of insight, but the team quickly began creating regular briefings on national polling and social research, so that we could see the most up to date headlines in one place.
We also reviewed national and international literature on the likely impacts of COVID-19 on specific communities and cohorts, reporting on key thematic areas in order to help inform local policy responses.
And keep listening...
One of our largest projects prior to COVID-19 was a programme of research aimed at understanding the experiences of working families with children who are ‘just about managing’ financially.
The qualitative research (delivered by research organisation Britain Thinks) wrapped up shortly before lockdown, but we felt the need for further research to understand the risks, issues and pressures facing families in light of the economic impacts of coronavirus.
The need to ‘listen’ and deeply understand families’ experiences has never been greater.
The insight gathered from this additional research has prompted a re-focusing of the programme in terms of our policy response. Whereas this was previously focused on social mobility, the short-term aims will now be about stability and ensuring basic needs are met, and mitigating against risks of long-term impacts and worsening of families circumstances.
We’re also carrying out research to track the attitudes and experiences of residents in Essex through a series of tele/video depth interviews over a period of several months. These interviews are wide ranging, covering health and wellbeing, children and education, employment, economic stability, and the impacts on local communities.
The longitudinal approach we have taken means we can be pro-active in switching focus as events unfold and as government guidance changes, and ‘keep listening’ as the situation progresses.
We’ll be sharing key insights from these research programmes in coming months, so stay tuned!