Healthy communities and COVID-19: moving to a whole system approach

Featured article - 17 August 2020
By Tom Mapplethorpe and Jude Stansfield, Public Health England

People Focused Group project

Caption: The People Focused Group are a peer support group for people experiencing mental ill health in Doncaster

We know that community life is essential for health and wellbeing, and the pandemic has made us all more aware of the value of social connectedness, neighbourliness, sense of belonging, inclusion, control, mutual trust and respect, and the resources and resourcefulness of our local neighbourhoods.

These community-level factors improve our wellbeing and help buffer against health risks, especially the factors underpinning inequalities such as disempowerment and marginalisation. In that way, the contribution of communities is not just a ‘nice to have’ addition to improving health but a central part of action to reduce health inequalities.

The Office of National Statistics has been tracking data on levels of community spirit during COVID-19. There were initial increases in people helping each other out and checking in on neighbours. Over the last three months people have increasingly felt that local community members would support them if they needed help (from 57% to 79%). This is mirrored by the growing number of mutual aid groups established during the pandemic, as reported on the Mutual Aid website, and the huge efforts made by the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS).

People Focused Group

People Focused Group are a peer support group for people experiencing mental ill health in Doncaster. They are currently coordinating a range of activity within local communities, including running a food bank, a peer-led crisis support service, and creative sessions focusing on a range of topics including writing and music.

Addressing inequalities

Clearly, we need to sustain these efforts and these levels of social and community capital. We also need to do more to ensure that no-one is left behind. Not all communities experience health, or social capital, equally; or have equal opportunity and resource to do so. Community-centred and community-led approaches within our health and care systems can help address this, working with the voluntary and community sector.

However, separate new service models are not enough. We need to ensure that the whole system is more aligned and community-centred, and that resources and opportunities are in place to enable all parts of the system to work together. Just before the pandemic, PHE published research into taking a whole system approach to building healthy communities. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of community-centred systems, including as part of our response and recovery. The research findings identify 11 elements (see link below) that enable community-centred approaches to be effective and sustainable in a local area. We are working with partners to test out the findings and strive towards putting people and communities at the heart of everything we do.

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