Creating the COVID-19 text service for vulnerable people

A small group from NHSX, NHS Digital, NHS Business Services Authority and the Behavioural Insights Team has developed a text service for those most threatened by COVID-19. 

On 21 March the Government issued guidance on shielding and protecting people who, on medical grounds, are considered extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

As part of this, the NHS identified the need to communicate the very latest, reliable information directly to these people, so they can use it to protect themselves and self-isolate effectively.

We know from research conducted by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) that people want to receive messages from trusted sources in this way.  

A small group working across national organisations - from NHSX, NHS Digital, NHS Business Services Authority and the BIT - was quickly stood up last week to develop the new text messaging service that would deliver this information. This service is part of a Vulnerable, Isolated and Social Care team, which is looking at how we use technology to support these people.

As a result, from Monday 23 March, daily text messages are being sent to over 1 million people who have been identified by the NHS in England as needing to protect themselves by self-isolating for at least 12 weeks because they are extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. This group includes people who have had organ transplants, have certain types of cancers, or have significant respiratory conditions. 

The text messages will be sent by the NHS and will include: 

  • information about why vulnerable people need to self-isolate
  • practical guidance such as how to access care and support while isolating
  • wellbeing and emotional advice (for example, advice on staying healthy while in isolation, taking regular exercise and improving sleep)

Messages will be sent daily between 23 March and 29 March, and we will review this as we go. We will be able to extend the text messaging service if we need to. 

The text content, created by the NHS, directs recipients to further sources of information on the NHS website and gov.uk. These sites are being updated regularly. People can opt out from the service if they want by replying “stop” to any message. 

One of our concerns was that the texts may be treated as spam by some recipients. They have been designed so that they are clearly from the NHS and government. Their intent and purpose is to provide useful information directly to people through an easy-to-use channel. This is not about ‘direct marketing’ but about effective, modern public health communication using the latest technology to facilitate safe and speedy support and advice.

We are not limiting our support to this channel. Letters will also be sent from NHS England, including to people whose mobile numbers we don’t have.

We began work on this just over a week ago, and standing up a service to such a tight deadline has been challenging. The key to working quickly has been keeping all of the organisations and individuals involved well coordinated and in close touch. Clinicians, digital and technology professionals, behavioural scientists and communication professionals have all worked together at pace to make this the best possible service for people in need of support. 

I’m grateful for the hard work of everyone involved. It will play an important part in keeping some of the people most vulnerable to COVID-19 safe during this outbreak.