Blog / SMS Shielding Service – some personal reflections from Blythe Robertson

Blythe Robertson: May 25, 2020

In our latest blog, Blythe Robertson, Policy and Partnership Manager for NDS, reflects on the development of the SMS Shielding Service in Scotland.


Time feels very strange at the moment. The sense in which things happened last week or last month feels hard to quantify. The feeling of what ‘normal life’ used to be is an increasingly distant memory. And this is just the personal reflection of someone living in good health with a busy job to keep the time at home zipping along at a rapid rate. 

For many, the result of the Covid-19 pandemic has been much more profoundly disruptive. At the end of March, the Scottish Government issued guidance to around 180,000 people in Scotland with certain pre-existing conditions, advising them to stay home to protect themselves from the virus. 

Known as "shielding", people who have a high risk of serious illness due to Covid-19 were advised that staying at home was a necessary precaution to minimise exposure to the virus. This went as far as limiting all non-essential contact with other members of their household. 

To provide reassurance about the delivery of essentials items for living, such as basic food and access to vital medicines, NDS was asked to consider the role that digital could play. Within a two-week timeframe, we developed a text messaging service to get groceries and medicines delivered to people in Scotland. 

This has been significant joint effort, with a partnership spanning Scottish Government and local authoritiessupermarkets, and delivery services Brakes and Bidfood UKoperating with a set of common goals to meet the needs of a growing number of people. From the initial group who signed up when it launched in early April, we now have around 97,000 people using the service.  

My own involvement in the work has morphed over that duration. Initially, I was involved in one of my continuing roles within the NDS team, looking at the equality and diversity implications of our approach. We documented an initial equality impact assessment prior to the service going live. 

I then worked directly with the development team to ensure that the content of messages we were sending was as readable as possible. I think at times we might have sacrificed a more inclusive, welcoming tone in the name of blunt clarity, but we’ve tried to learn as we’ve gone along. 

As part of promoting inclusive access to the services – such as delivery of basic groceries, connection to local authority services for delivery of prescription medicines, and access to priority supermarket shopping slots – we recognised that we’d need to offer ways in to the process that went further than just a text message service. 

I stayed on with the project to support local authorities submitting data to us from people phoning their contact centres looking to access these services. What looked like an initially straightforward set of tasks – giving people access to a secure file transfer site – grew into a complex data quality and support line role. This has been a challenge but a joy. The sense of collective shared action, whether across NDS or with the wider network of contacts I’ve built across local authorities, has been hugely energising.  

There’s a little way to go to get the service working as well as it can. There’s a lot of information flowing across the system; making sure it reaches the right people at the right time is vital. This is valuable learning not just for the purposes of this project, but for the wider aims of NDS. 

Once the service becomes increasingly automated, my day-to-day involvement will likely reduceI’ll have mixed feelings about that as it has been a hard but rewarding shift. While the days have been long and the challenges at times considerable, this feels like the kind of work that we’ll reflect on, in time, as an outstanding achievement.  

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