Two years ago, as Spring brought welcome sunshine after the winter months, we were not unfolding ready for summer but instead facing the harsh reality of lockdown with an unknown virus turning the world upside down…
by Alix Macfarlane
I studied history as an undergraduate. I was a student at Sussex university, which involved a heady mix of African history, modern world studies and political revolutions. Two eras of turbulent change in England were on the syllabus, covering the 1300s and 1600s. With the lurking memory of studying the plague years, combined with an ever-present overactive imagination, my mind played out a seemingly unending variation of dystopian futures in early 2020.
This was exacerbated by my home of Brighton & Hove being one of the first places in the country to officially report confirmed cases of Covid-19. Cases 3 to 8 were reported in our city in February 2020. These were also the first UK citizens to test positive in the UK, a lightning rod for media around the world.
At this point, when UK case numbers were still in single figures, there was a whirlwind of activity but no firm facts to share to reassure residents. I led a press conference in response to growing demands for comment. The nation’s media descended on Hove Town Hall to hear the only official advice available was to wash hands and avoid contact with people. It was the strangest of times.
Within weeks Covid was across the country and the national lockdowns began. Like communications leads everywhere, I sat at home with a hastily plugged in laptop joining back to back virtual meetings responding to the developing public health crisis. The death management cell meeting, the safety advisory group, the public health comms call, and many more on screen sessions became a daily drumbeat, with the Prime Minister’s early evening announcements leading to drafts for the next day running late into the night.
There were also moments of surreal normality amid the Covid chaos as we dealt with non-Covid related comms priorities. On my own patch I found myself juggling Covid messaging with communications for the local political leadership changing hands, Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a funeral for a national treasure and extreme heatwave warnings.
Over the two years of the pandemic we’ve seen such incredible work from dedicated professionals near and far. On an objective level the data was fascinating, and the collaborative approach of organisations took our communications forward at an impressive pace unimaginable pre-Covid.
But the physical and emotional toll on our colleagues was terrible and will continue to have a legacy for years to come. There are tragic stories of loss and times passed we can never regain. We all faced hardships and yet we somehow had to carry on. I learnt much about my own resilience and my determination to look after the teams I am responsible for during this time.
A main overriding experience for me throughout the pandemic was my role and responsibilities with LGcomms. It’s a privilege to volunteer my time to such a worthwhile organisation and I have found much happiness linking up with like-minded professionals across the country.
LGcomms is a national body made up of public sector organisations working together to raise the standard of communications in our industry. Any public sector communicator can tap into its benefits if their organisation is a member. It’s an amazing way to gain personal development and networking.
I first truly appreciated the incredible opportunities of LGcomms when I was selected for its flagship development programme, Future Leaders, more than five years ago. Determined to give back some of the energy invested in me, I joined the executive committee when I completed my Future Leaders year. In late 2019 I decided to stand as chair, with much enthusiasm for building on all the good in place to forge positive change to reach more members and increase diversity.
In the same week Brighton & Hove was officially confirmed as having Covid in the city, I found out I was the unopposed candidate for LGcomms Chair with the support of the executive committee. I officially took up post in April 2020, chairing my first AGM via a computer screen. The reality of the pandemic inevitably slowed everything down. The elected members of the executive committee are volunteers giving their free time for the good of the organisation. Suddenly free time for anyone working in public sector communications was limited or non-existent. I’m very proud to have led the team through the last couple of years (I stood unopposed again last year). It was challenging to deliver and build on our core activities, but we did so with determination while laying plans for this time now when we can return to full strength.
I’m currently standing for a third term as Chair. In some ways it feels like the first year that I can truly deliver on the ambitions I brought to the table in 2019. But I’m not new to this role. I bring two years of experience leading our committee through some of the toughest of times and overcoming difficult obstacles along the way.
There is much we can and will do now. We’re currently looking for new members to join the LGcomms committee to bring innovative ideas and better reflect our wider membership in our management. Be part of the positive change and apply to join us.
It’s been a long two years, yet we are stronger in many ways as a profession. We know we are at our best when we work together, look after each other, promote success and work to raise people up.
As I look back at recent years and consider how they will go down in the academic books studied by future generations of history students, I realise what a unique experience it is to have been at the heart of our communities during the Covid crisis. I aim to stay here for many years to come.
Alix Macfarlane is chair of LGcomms and head of communications at West Sussex County Council. You can say hello on Twitter at @AlixMac
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Pic by Alix