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5 min read - By Kajal Odedra

The canaries in the coalmine

In the UK, COVID-19 petitions are warnings – they can't be ignored

Change.org has always been a place for people to come to share their personal experience of problems, and to find people who want to join them to advocate for solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen this take on a new importance; the unprecedented scale and speed of the pandemic exaggerated the risks of Government making decisions without considering the most vulnerable, and often with unintended consequences.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, petitions on Change.org have served as a canary in the coalmine. As decisions have been made by the UK Government faster than ever before, people were quickly falling between the gaps or spotting problems that officials weren’t. Petitions have given those people a torch to expose problems and a microphone to advocate for solutions.

This has happened in two ways. Firstly, expertise often comes from the ground up. People working on the frontline of the crisis, or who have fallen through the gaps in support, see problems that people in power don’t. Those people have started petitions which have quickly gathered huge support. This urgent collective action has pushed the Government to make or change decisions.

Take COVID-19 testing as an example. As the Government u-turned on testing “in the community” to patients in hospitals on March 12th, junior doctor Rebecca spotted a glaring flaw: her and her colleagues were still having to go into work if they had mild symptoms because tests just weren’t available. So she started a petition on March 15th, calling for NHS workers to be prioritised for testing. Her petition quickly gathered over a million signatures, national newspapers covered her campaign, and within days the Government promised to prioritise NHS workers for testing.

As well as viral petitions, there is another way that Change.org can spot the canaries in the coalmine; the number of petitions being started on a topic. The sheer number of petitions being started on the platform during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that our small UK campaigns team has been able to quickly identify trending topics that point to wide problems in the way a decision has been made.

A good example is the impact of COVID-19 on cancer treatment. Even before the UK went into lockdown, dozens of petitions had been started to shine a spotlight on the issue. On 20th March, Lynsey started a petition asking for her mum to still be treated, quickly followed by Nicola, a doctor who was concerned about her patients on already long waiting lists. Over the last few months over a million people have signed petitions on this issue. This has led to hundreds of news articles and interviews, which prompted the health secretary Matt Hancock to announce restarting services where possible from the end of April.

As I write this, it’s the start of August 2020. Over the past few months we’ve seen politicians and journalists turn to the Change.org platform more than ever to see what’s actually impacting people and, in doing so, spot emerging problems. The Department of Education spotted that there was growing concern over exam results, as a result of schoolchildren not taking their exams this year, and have been engaging with hundreds of thousands of people who signed a petition on the issue.

What’s the next canary in the coalmine? Right now a petition is started almost every day for families to visit their loved ones in care homes, as many are still in lockdown. I’ve read heartbreaking stories of parents who are scared for the long-term impact on their autistic children who are still in lockdown away from their families.

As lockdown eases for most of us (at least for now) and the Government focuses on the headline issues like getting people back to work and school, it’s families like these who are at risk of being forgotten. It can be hard for one family with one story to be heard by people in power. But when dozens of families tell their stories, gathering thousands of supporters and telling the media about their experience, they can’t be ignored. These petitions are canaries, warning of an emerging problem and giving the Government urgency to act now.

Written by – Kajal Odedra
Executive Director, Change.org UK