The Southampton COVID-19 Community Champions are a vital network of people who live or work across the city. The scheme was set up to combat the spread of misleading public health news, an issue that has become increasingly more urgent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The champions play a key role in helping to share trustworthy information about COVID-19 throughout their communities and workplaces. The scheme has champions of all ages and backgrounds, with the young champions in particular, being key to helping share public health messages that empower and educate their peers. 

Can you tell us what the Community Champion scheme is for and what Champions do?

Our COVID-19 Community Champion team is made of volunteers from across Southampton, who want to do their bit to keep themselves and others safe and well during the pandemic.

Anyone living, working or studying in the city can register to join the scheme and receive the latest advice, guidance and key resources around COVID-19 from the Council’s Public Health Team, through platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook groups and weekly virtual forums. We ask that they then do whatever they can to share this with their friends, family and other members of their community.

They can use whatever means they see appropriate to share information, and we don’t have expectations on how much time they have to spend doing it. We understand that everyone is trying to juggle commitments such as childcare, working from home and the general pressures of life during a pandemic. Whether a Champion shares the information with a thousand of their colleagues or one family member, it all means that accurate, reliable and timely information is being spread through a community.

Why is the Community Champion model important?

This is a scheme that really widens our reach as a Public Health Team. We are able to work with Champions to make use of the social networks that they have in place to reach people who might not necessarily follow the Council website or social media channels, as well as shape our messages based on their insights and feedback

Our role is to make sure that we are giving our Champions the tools they need to pass these messages on, by making sure that we are giving them information that is relevant, accurate and timely. We know that there is a lot of misinformation (false and inaccurate information) and disinformation (deliberately deceptive messaging such as anti-vaccination propaganda) out there relating to COVID-19 and we think that this is a crucial step in fighting back against that.

Why do you want young people to be Community Champions?

Perhaps more than any other group, young people have had their lives turned upside down by the pandemic. For large parts of the last year, their everyday routine and social lives have gone out of the window. The pandemic is a confusing and often overwhelming experience for all of us, so I can only imagine how it feels for them. We also know that lots of misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 is shared through social media, where young people often spend a lot of their time.

We want to make sure that young people feel as knowledgeable and in control of the current situation, as they possibly can be. It is really important that they get reliable and accurate information around COVID-19 and can share this with their peers. We also know that young people in particular value getting information from a peer – someone who they see as approachable, relatable and trustworthy. They also play a key role in sharing information with family members.

What do you see the COVID-19 Young Health Champions doing as part of that role?

It has so far been difficult for us to engage with young people to encourage them to join the Community Champions programme. The natural way we would reach them is through their school and as you’d expect, teachers, parents and students have all had enough on their plates during the recent lockdown.

We are therefore, really excited to see both schools reopening, as well as the launch of the RSPH Level 2 Award for COVID-19 Young Health Champions. Over the coming months, we look forward to working with both RSPH and LifeLab (another amazing organisation which has helped to set up the Young Health Champions scheme) to make sure that as many young people as possible are trained as COVID-19 Young Health Champions and that they are able to play a key role in our Community Champions programme.

The qualification supports young people to develop the skills and knowledge needed to become trusted, relatable and approachable sources of information and support to their peers around COVID-19. It also gives a deserved sense of recognition that comes with a nationally-recognised qualification, which we feel is an important reward for young people who are giving up their time and energy to help us.

Our next step is to establish a working group of young people from across Southampton, who can help us tailor the Community Champions to reach more of their peers with messages around COVID-19. We believe that the COVID-19 Young Health Champions will have a crucial role to play in this working group and in helping us to take our Community Champions scheme from strength-to-strength.