The Scar Free Foundation launches world’s first research programme to identify scarring gene

A world-leading £1.5 million research programme that aims to achieve scar free healing within a generation has been launched today, 26th November, by The Scar Free Foundation, the only medical research charity which focuses solely on scarring. The five-year research study led by the University of Bristol will identify the gene(s) that causes scarring and inform future treatments.

Scarring affects over 20 million people in the UK*and The Scar Free Foundation Programme of Wound Healing Research at the University of Bristol will be the first study of its kind in the world – combining large scale population health data with model organism studies to analyse the role that genes play in wound repair and scar formation.

Led by Paul Martin, Professor of Cell Biology, Nic Timpson, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, and Dr Beck Richardson, Lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Bristol; the research team will identify genetic differences and investigate the genetic make-up of scarring by drawing on DNA data from large groups of people including: people with BCG vaccination scarring, children with cleft lip surgery, women with Caesarean section scarring and patients with internal lung scarring. This data will be combined with scientific studies focusing on the translucent zebrafish, using live imaging and genetic analysis to model wound healing and scar formation.

Professor Paul Martin said: 

“The Scar Free Foundation’s investment with the University of Bristol gives us a unique opportunity to undertake world class research into the genetics of scarring. The programme will enable us to marry up the fantastic population health cohort approaches that Bristol does so well, with our own wet lab experimental and cell biology studies in order to break new ground in scarring research.”

Dr Beck Richardson said:

“Being a part of this exciting project will allow us to study how certain genes influence wound repair and the severity of subsequent scarring. Live imaging studies in translucent zebrafish will allow us to see how changes to these genes affects certain cells involved in scarring and gives us an experimental window through which to watch scars being formed and to identify ways to stop this.”

Dr Sophie Dix, an Ambassador spokesperson for the Foundation, said 

“As a mother to a burns survivor, I am delighted to see significant funding being dedicated to research into scar prevention. We live in a world obsessed by perfection and body image, yet the cosmetic aspects, and the fact that my daughter will soon be a teenager, are not my main concern. Scars don’t grow the same way that healthy skin does – this makes walking and running painful and Delilah’s hands don’t function in the same way. She has had to endure countless operations to try to gain normal function. The work The Scar Free Foundation is funding is pioneering and has the potential to transform the lives of the many people affected by scarring – in the UK and worldwide.”

Brendan Eley, Chief Executive of the Scar Free Foundation, said:

“We’re delighted to be able to launch such a ground-breaking programme with the University of Bristol. This life changing research will help us identify which factors cause us all to scar differently, and develop innovative treatments to improve patients’ lives. Scarring can cause long term emotional and physical problems including pain, itching and loss of movement, requiring the need for frequent operations, skin grafts, cream application multiple times a day and daily physiotherapy. We want to find ways of making life easier in the future for the millions of people living with scarring in the UK.

“Like many charities, Covid-19 has impacted our research programmes over the last six months, with some studies having to be put on hold as clinicians and scientists returned to the front line. Although we need to increase our current funding to meet ongoing research needs, we’re lucky to have low overheads and a highly efficient team with a very clear aim –to achieve scar free healing within a generation.”

Scaling up swab sample testing for COVID-19

At UK Biocentre they have transformed their facility to test swab samples for COVID-19 on an industrial scale.

This would not have been possible without their dedicated staff, 150 volunteer scientists and the support of the British Army, universities and other partners.

Hear more from the people who helped make this possible – click the video below.

COVID-19 Testing Equipment

Milton Keynes laboratory now testing COVID-19 samples 24/7

UK Biocentre analyses samples including the crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

More than 150 scientists from academia and industry have joined staff at UK Biocentre to test tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples every day. UK Biocentre laboratories in Milton Keynes have been transformed to analyse swab samples at industrial scale to support the national effort against the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples are being sent to UK Biocentre every day from the drive through testing centres, mobile testing units and other sites. Home testing kits are also being sent to the laboratory in Milton Keynes for analysis. All swab samples – which are anonymous – are tested within 24 hours and the outcome of every test is then uploaded electronically and sent to the relevant organisation.

On 28 April a batch of additional samples arrived from HMS Queen Elizabeth – the Royal Navy’s largest ever warship and the future UK flagship – and were analysed overnight enabling the ship to set sail from Portsmouth.

The testing has enabled the aircraft carrier to sail from Portsmouth (29 April) to ensure she is ready to conduct her first operational deployment in 2021. The Portsmouth-based aircraft carrier will undergo several weeks of training and assessment with the staff of Flag Officer Sea Training to ensure the UK can deliver on its commitment to have a Carrier Strike Group ready to deploy from the end of this year. The training will include more qualifying training for UK F35 Lightning fighter jet crews, who will be conducting practice manoeuvres from her decks, giving vital experience to the aircrews and ship’s company involved in air operations.

Dr Tony Cox, UK Biocentre CEO, said:
“It is an honour for us to support the national testing effort by analysing samples from NHS staff, other frontline workers and their families – and this week on behalf of the Royal Navy. As the number of people being tested for COVID-19 increases, we are now analysing tens of thousands of COVID-19 samples each day.”

“Our 24/7 operation would not be possible without the support of universities and other partners who have loaned us equipment and the volunteer scientists who are using their expertise to oversee the liquid handling robots, the RNA extraction, the PCR reagent and other vital elements of our process.”

Thanks to vital support from partners, UK Biocentre has expanded rapidly by installing state-of-the-art robotic equipment and other technology enabling scientists to analyse at industrial scale. Large amounts of equipment needed to provide a fully automated service have been installed. Accuracy remains the number one priority and UK Biocentre continues to be supported by the NHS and PHE to ensure the highest standards of accuracy are achieved at industrial scale.

To meet the growing demand, UK Biocentre’s staff team has been joined by an army of more than 150 volunteer scientists – including molecular scientists, technicians and bioinformaticians – to deliver a high throughput, 24/7 analysis service for as long as is needed.

Dr Daniel Patten, a post-doctoral researcher at University of Birmingham, who is volunteering at UK Biocentre as a laboratory assistant, said:
“As a laboratory scientist, I possessed the right skills that were required to volunteer here – the same skills and techniques that I use every week. Many university labs are closed as a consequence of the lockdown and so it’s fantastic to be in the lab and actively contributing to our understanding of this virus. It’s been genuinely incredible to work on this and a fantastic experience. Normally as a researcher, you’d hope to make a key difference over the long-term in your specialty; however, working at the UK Biocentre we can have an immediate impact and could potentially be saving thousands of lives by supporting this national testing effort.”

UK Biocentre is working closely with colleagues at the other two Lighthouse Labs in Glasgow and Cheshire, and is proud to acknowledge the many private and public organisations who are partnering in this unprecedented effort, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Tecan and Brooks, as well as Public Health England, NHS England and the Department for Health and Social Care.

Simon Weston

Scar Free Foundation announces plans for new burns scarring research

Scarring affects over 20 million people in the UK, according to new figures released today by The Scar Free Foundation. Yet the findings reveal that scarring is not talked about enough in our society and there is still a lack of public awareness of the physical – as well as emotional – impact that scarring can have on people. One of the most common causes of scarring is burn injury, with 64,000 children seeking medical treatment in the UK alone last year, and yet it is an area of medical research that has been critically underfunded.

The Scar Free Foundation is the only medical research charity which focuses solely on scarring, and is today announcing plans to establish the world’s largest cohort of children with burns to take part in research and inform future treatments, in partnership with University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust. The charity, along with world leading clinicians and scientists, is now calling on government and other major funders to further invest in developing effective new treatments to reduce – and eventually eliminate – scarring from burn injuries, which affects four million people in the Western world.

According to the survey commissioned by The Scar Free Foundation, despite over a third (38%) of the UK population having a scar, it is often a ‘hidden issue’. Three times as many respondents feel we don’t talk enough about the impact of scarring as a society as those who think we do – the reasons given range from it being seen as a ‘taboo’ and ‘too personal’ to ‘being embarrassed’ about the subject. Over a third of women (38%) and a quarter of men (26%) would feel uncomfortable asking someone how they got their scars, yet talking more openly can raise awareness of the problems people face and reduce stigma.

Although nearly half of people questioned (47%) are aware of emotional problems related to scarring, less than a quarter (24%) knew about the physical impact that scarring can have, with a further quarter being unaware of either the physical or emotional impact on people. The physical impact of severe scarring can include pain, itching and loss of movement, requiring the need for frequent operations, skin grafts, cream application multiple times a day and daily physiotherapy.

Simon Weston CBE was badly burned all over his face and body during the Falklands War when the RFA Sir Galahad was destroyed in the Bluff Cove Air Attack in 1982: “They hit the ship and ignited the fuel. We lost 48 men on board, most of them my friends, and of the 97 that survived I was told I was the worst injured.”

Simon Weston
Simon Weston CBE

Simon is passionate about the issue of scarring and is proud to have been a part of The Scar Free Foundation since it started: “As people with scarring, our contribution is as valuable as all the clinicians and the researchers. We’ve been the tapestry for them to work with. The Scar Free Foundation has such a great vision. There’s a heck of a lot of work to do – we need to have something in place to minimise scarring and eventually eradicate it. To end up with a scar free world, wouldn’t it be wonderful?”

“My scars stretch and hurt and they are itchy, I can’t hold onto the bars in gymnastics because I don’t have very many fingers and it hurts my arms,” said 5 year old Elizabeth Soffe, who was badly burned in a house fire when she was 6 months old. Scarring affects almost all of her body, and she lost her hair, a lot of her fingers, part of her nose and one of her ears in the blaze. The parts of her body that were not burned have been used to provide skin grafts and she has restricted movement due to scarring on her elbows, wrists and other joints. “People say mean things because I look different to them, but I know I’m beautiful.”

Scar Free Foundation Ambassador Elizabeth
Scar Free Foundation Ambassador Elizabeth

For Elizabeth and her family, the physical impact of scarring and how it restricts her life, is significant. She has to have frequent operations and skin grafts, and her scars itch constantly which keeps her awake at night. She also has to have cream massaged into her skin several times a day and daily physiotherapy to help her movement. Elizabeth’s father, Liam Soffe, said: “Elizabeth just wants to do the things that other 5 year olds enjoy – playing with friends, swimming and having fun. The Scar Free Foundation’s aim for a scar free future is a fantastic goal. Life without scars and their associated physical impact: the restrictive movement, the pain, the itch and the visible differences would make things much easier for girls and boys like Elizabeth. What The Scar Free Foundation can do is move treatments forward massively through funding medical research so that children like Elizabeth can benefit and do all the things that other children take for granted.”

Burn injury is one of the most common forms of trauma worldwide, over two-thirds affected are children. This is an area of research that has been historically underfunded, as statistics[1] from 2011 showed that overall research expenditure on complex trauma, of which burns is one small element, was less than 1% of total UK public expenditure on health research. Data from 2019[2] reveals that studies looking into skin and inflammatory conditions – of which burns is again just one small part – account for 6% of Medical Research Council funded research over the last five years.

Brendan Eley, Chief Executive of The Scar Free Foundation, said:

“The NHS provides excellent burn care within the boundaries of what is currently possible. However, we want to highlight that burn care – particularly the prevention of scarring from burns and scalds – has not moved on in the way that other areas of medicine have, which is why we need more medical research in this area. Burns patients tell us that they are most concerned about longer term scarring and the impact that it has on their movement and quality of life. We want to help people living with scarring achieve their full potential, as well as moving forward towards a scar free future. A cohort study would be groundbreaking – enabling us to map the DNA of an enormous range of children with burns, so we can isolate those factors which influence the severity of scarring and improve patients’ lives.”

Dr Amber Young, Consultant Paediatric Anaesthetist and International Burns Researcher, said:

“The NHS provides the UK with a unique opportunity to undertake world class research into scarring. The Scar Free Foundation’s previous investment has transformed burn care research from ‘silo’ small scale projects into collaborative cross-service, multi centre research projects undertaken on a larger and more meaningful scale. We want to put the patient at the centre of our research and establishing this new children’s burns cohort study will enable us to develop treatments which will have a real impact on children with burns in the future.”

Visit for more information.

New patient network to support people with obesity across the Middle East

A new Patient Network to support people living with obesity, backed by clinicians across the Gulf and Lebanon, is being launched by the World Obesity Federation. Designed to raise awareness of the multiple causes of obesity and provide access to information about healthier lifestyle choices, treatment options and ongoing management, the programme marks World Obesity’s first major initiative in the region.

Image: World Obesity Federation

Dr Nasreen Alfaris, Endocrinologist and Obesity Medicine specialist in KSA and co-chair of the World Obesity Gulf & Lebanon Network Steering Committee, said: “In some countries in our region a third of our people are living with obesity*. This initiative will help people make informed choices about healthier lifestyles and the different treatment options available. Obesity is a complex disease that is driven by a multitude of factors, including our living environment, cultural traditions and genetics. It’s also one of the key health and lifestyle challenges facing our region. The Patient Network is an opportunity for people to share their own experiences and, in doing so, support other people living with obesity to manage weight loss and live a healthy, active lifestyle.”  The Global Patient Network hosts evidence and features on several key factors associated with obesity in the Gulf including: changes in food habits and increasing consumption of fast food; rising levels of childhood obesity; supporting men and women living with obesity and explaining treatment options; and promoting higher physical activity levels.   Speaking in the UAE, Lucy Keightley, Director of Communications and Partnerships at World Obesity, said:  “If you are living with obesity and want a source of evidence based information, please join the Patient Network at – a source of facts and information on obesity. The Patient Network is an online hub enabling people to connect with other people’s stories and experiences. We are looking for people living with obesity to share their story. By sharing your personal experience, more people living with obesity will have access to the information and support to enable them to live a healthier active lifestyle.”   World Obesity has worked in collaboration with a steering group of leading clinicians from across the region, drawing on their experiences to develop and roll-out the initiative. The Gulf and Lebanon Steering Committee met in Muscat earlier this year and will continue to provide expert advice to the Network.   The website will be promoted over the coming months via social media and traditional media channels. If you have a story or experience to share, simply log onto 

HRH the Duke of Sussex visits the world’s first conflict wound research centre

HRH The Duke of Sussex today visited the world’s first specialist military and civilian wound research centre at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham today, where he met armed forces’ veterans and scientific and clinical experts spearheading new treatments. The Scar Free Foundation Centre for Conflict Wound Research is a ground-breaking national facility. Its main aim is to minimise the psychological and physical impact of scarring and limb loss among armed forces personnel injured in service and civilians wounded in terrorist attacks.

Photo by James Allen

Scarring can have a significant long-term physical and psychological impact on survivors of conflict. More than 6,000 members of the British armed forces have been seriously injured or scarred in recent conflicts. The new centre supports the creation of bespoke psychological interventions to help veterans and their families adjust to living with an altered appearance such as physical scarring (anywhere on the body) or limb loss.

The Centre, which was officially opened by Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex in October last year, is a research partnership with the University of Birmingham, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and the Centre for Appearance Research at The University of the West of England.

The centre will pilot tailored psychological treatments to help seriously injured armed forces personnel cope with life with an altered, scarred appearance. This study, called ‘UNITS’ (Understanding Needs and Interventions for the Treatment of Scarring), will involve veterans from recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, recruited through the CASEVAC Club whose membership is solely made up of veterans wounded in combat. 

The UNITS study will recruit veterans, serving military personnel and their families to better understand and address the psychological needs of those affected by appearance-altering conflict wounds. More than 460 people will take part in the research over the next three years. Armed forces personnel and their families interested in participating in the psychological study can email to get involved.

On the visit His Royal Highness observed Scar Free research, including an anti-scarring gel dressing for use in austere environments and was particularly interested in how they collaborate with key partners to address the challenges in acute care, long-term impact and psychological effects of conflict related injuries.

As well as learning about Scar Free research, Prince Harry spent time with members of the CASEVAC Club, made up of veterans injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom have also participated in the Invictus Games. The CASEVAC Club are involved in the trial and design of research underway at the Centre and many members will participate in Scar Free studies.

In addition to exploring the psychological impact of scarring and developing new treatments, the centre is bringing together leading scientists and clinicians to investigate the body’s healing process following trauma associated with chemical, burn and blast injuries. The Duke will also meet the expert team spearheading new clinical and biological treatments to reduce scarring. These include Decorin, a pro-healing protein developed within a new biomaterial gel for use as an anti-scarring dressing, along with laser therapy to correct historic scars.

Dave Henson, Co-Founder of The CASEVAC Club said: “The membership of the CASEVAC Club is comprised of unexpected survivors – those that, by rights, should have died on the battlefield.  For many, surviving wounds of their severity is unheard of and new to medical science. We are actively engaging with this research because the knowledge that can be gained will provide insights that can increase the likelihood of future unexpected survivors, and improve the outcome for survivors of traumatic injury in general.

Brendan Eley, Chief Executive of the Scar Free Foundation, said: “Scarring not only has a lasting physical effect, but can have a serious emotional impact long after the wounds themselves have healed. The visible changes in appearance caused by conflict injuries that result in looking ‘different’ can be distressing for military personnel and their families. With the help of the people who have experienced this kind of life changing injury we can learn what support is needed by those affected, and develop tailored interventions for the armed forces community, an important part of our goal to deliver scar free healing within a generation.”

A day with NHS Digital

Our NHS has been a major talking point across the country this year. Work to mark its 70th birthday continues, as is the work to sustain it for another 70 years. It’s a key challenge facing No. 10, Whitehall and Skipton House. Whilst we don’t yet have the answer, it’s clear that digital transformation will play a leading role.

Communication is critical to the development, implementation and success of digital enablers in the NHS. This is true both in terms of encouraging people to use existing digital services – such as GP online services – to the more long-term opportunities enabled by technology. A paper-free NHS and integrated patient records. Smartphone apps and digital clinical engagement. The widespread use of digital medicines. Remote monitoring and care, such as harnessing the Internet of Things to improve prevention.

Successful multi-platform communication and engagement campaigns are needed to make all of these possible. People need to know about them and also need to have faith in them. It’s an old adage, but many of these need communications to help win hearts and minds.

NHS Digital – Shadow Me programme

That’s why I was delighted to take part in NHS Digital’s ‘Shadow Me’ programme, launched by Rachel Royall, Director of Communications. Objectives were two-way: for me to see first-hand the challenges facing a national body’s Director of Communications, but also to recommend ideas from my own experience.

It was quite the day to shadow. Media had broken a confidential story the day before. The Secretary of State was visiting its offices later that week. Important changes affecting patient interactions with the NHS were being planned. All issues that are vital to the organisation’s reputation. All areas that will support efforts to give the NHS a clean bill of health for the future.

Despite the external priorities, Rachel also found time to liaise with the different elements of the communications team, who are split between London and Leeds. She also found time to introduce new starters. The emphasis on internal communications and professional development was clear to see – not least by involving me in such a hands-on way.

So, what key lessons did I learn about being a Director of Communications in the NHS?

  1. Never let a media issue get in the way of your people. In fact, do the opposite. Wherever possible, use it as a chance to provide valuable learning opportunities for your team – it’s invaluable development experience.
  2. Crisis comms? Lead from the front. At all levels. Your leaders need you to provide your expertise, experience and guidance calmly in the face of a crisis. Highlight tangible implications and scenarios and demonstrate how you’re handling them.
  3. In-house communications consultancy, on demand. I was reminded how communication teams span pretty much every workstream in an organisation. It’s a vital enabler across all the major programmes. Comms professionals on the agency side should always remember how much time their clients/in-house comms leaders and teams spend advising their colleagues across the organisation and representing their team internally. It’s not all about your project!
  4. Does comms have a role here? Almost always the answer is yes. Think about the programme in the context of the end user. How will it land? Always strive to get communications at the table from the outset.
  5. Develop new leaders. Perhaps by launching a shadowing programme! It provides valuable insights and learning and brings tangible benefits for both parties.

Written by James McCollum, Associate Director, Barley Communications. With thanks to Rachel Royall, Director of Communications, NHS Digital, for providing us with the opportunity to shadow for the day.

World’s first specialist conflict wound research centre aims to eliminate scarring within a generation

The first military and civilian wound research centre of its kind in the world was officially opened by Scar Free Foundation Patron Her Royal Highness The Countess of Wessex at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham today.

Photo credit: Scar Free Foundation

The Scar Free Foundation Centre for Conflict Wound Research is a ground-breaking national facility that marks a vital step in achieving the charity’s goal of achieving scar free healing within a generation. The Centre aims to minimise the psychological and physical impact of scarring among armed forces personnel and civilians wounded in terrorist attacks.

The new world-class centre has the potential to improve the lives of the estimated 4.5 million1 people in the UK who currently live with a physical scar which affects their wellbeing. Scarring has a particularly significant long-term impact on survivors of conflict and terrorist attack, with more than 6,000 members of the British armed forces having been seriously injured or scarred in recent conflicts.  

Photo credit: Scar Free Foundation

Veterans who have survived physical injury are also at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems. The new centre will also support the creation of bespoke psychosocial interventions to help veterans and their families adjust to living with scars.  

Building on the UK’s leading role in wound healing and regenerative research, the new centre will bring together scientists and clinicians to investigate the body’s healing process following trauma common to conflicts and attack (chemical, burn and blast injury). Over 480 patients, many of them injured veterans, will take part in research over the next three years, and the expert team will spearhead the development of new psychological, clinical and biological treatments including:  

  • The first clinical trial of a battle-ready, transportable dressing, which can be used in the field of conflict to help the skin heal with reduced scarring – this has potential civilian use e.g. at the scene of traffic accidents and other severe trauma. 
  • Pilot of tailored psychological treatments to help seriously injured Armed Forces personnel cope with life with an altered, scarred appearance. This project will involve veterans from recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, recruited through The CASEVAC Club (which represents injured veterans). 
  • Development of improved laser treatment to correct historic scarring amongst veterans and civilians. 

Brendan Eley, Chief Executive of the Scar Free Foundation, said:  

“The physical and emotional effects of scarring are serious and often life changing. Our aim is to deliver scar free healing within a generation by establishing a pioneering programme of medical research in the UK.  The launch of this centre is an important part of achieving our goal, and by working with world leading experts, scientists, and researchers, we are discovering revolutionary new treatments that will transform the lives of millions worldwide.” 

The Scar Free Foundation Centre for Conflict Wound Research has been established in partnership with the University of Birmingham, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, the Centre for Appearance Research at the University of the West of England, and The CASEVAC injured veterans club. Crucially, the centre will be closely integrated with a wider network of academic and clinical institutions in the UK and beyond to ensure that the work is inclusive and at the forefront of scarring research.   

Professor Naiem Moiemen, Director of The Scar Free Foundation Centre for Conflict Wound Research, said: 

“We are delighted to host the new Scar Free Foundation Centre for Conflict Wound Research here in Birmingham. It builds upon our ongoing partnership with the Scar Free Foundation since June 2012, with the Centre for Burns Research. We are honoured to be able to continue our work with Scar Free and are committed for the long-term to achieve the Scar Free Foundation’s mission to achieve scar free healing within a generation.” 

Research undertaken at The Scar Free Foundation centre will cost £4.8 million over three years. This is being funded by the Chancellor using LIBOR funds of £3 million – the largest grant announced in the final round of LIBOR funding – alongside an additional £1.5 million from the Foundation’s partners, including the Ana Leaf Foundation and JP Moulton Charitable Foundation.   

The work carried out is actively supported by senior armed forces personnel including the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Surgeon General. Other Armed Forces charities including Help for Heroes, Royal British Legion and Forces in Mind Trust are also cooperating in research activity. 

Stopping weight stigma: World Obesity Day 2018

Stigma around health conditions is nothing new. Over the years, HIV, diabetes and mental health have all led individuals to be seen and treated differently or negatively purely because of their health.

Thankfully, significant strides have been made to change society’s views in many areas. But this is not yet the case with obesity. Weight stigma continues to be an issue – whether conscious or not – ranging from subtle degrading to outward hostility. Around the world, it’s evident in the media, among politicians and even within healthcare.

The narrative needs to change. Obesity is a complex disease that stems from an interplay of multiple underlying factors: a dysfunctional food system, genetics and barriers within health systems are all part of the rising obesity rates. Patients are not culprits.

That’s why we’re proud to support the World Obesity Federation to help tackle stigma on 11 October for #WorldObesityDay. Here’s why it’s important:

  • Weight stigma in health services deters people from getting help with weight management
  • Stigma undermines people’s broader health: internalised personal blame for the disease causes anxiety, depression and low self-esteem
  • Changing the narrative around diseases and conditions (such as HIV) can transform public perceptions and improve quality of life and outcomes for patients.

We’re excited to be involved and look forward to engaging stakeholders – including the media – to help change the existing narrative and end weight stigma.

Unleash the benefits of sport

Like much of the developed world, Wales faces the challenges of a population that is getting more overweight and growing old. Add to this mix areas of entrenched poverty – which has been shown to magnify health inequalities – and there is a recipe for a public health crisis that could last decades.

Recognising this the Welsh Government asked Sport Wales to pull together a vision for sport.  Unlike other national strategies this was to be owned by the nation and not just by those people that run sport.

Today is the launch of this vision and I am proud to have played some part in its development working alongside Barley Communications.

So, what is so different? For the first time a country has embraced a truly cradle to the grave approach to sport. This vision is as much about keeping the pensioners fit as it is about giving children the skills to live active lives. This is a significant shift.

When we talked to citizens about what they wanted, it was pretty clear plenty of people want the chance to get fit but don’t currently have the confidence to take part in ‘traditional’ sport. This is why the vision focuses on enjoyment rather than simply meeting health targets.

For too many people the idea of sport is a deeply engrained negative one. This often is a consequence of off-putting childhood experiences. Preaching at people about the benefits of sport or promoting unrealistic role models also isn’t going to work. Giving people a range of fun opportunities that are easily accessible will. For some this might mean training for a marathon, but these people will always be in a minority. Most people have lower expectations and want to take part in an activity that they enjoy and feel safe doing. For some this might be practising yoga in their bedroom, for others it might be football ‘golf’. It’s these kinds of activities that need to be encouraged, even if at the start they don’t necessarily achieve huge health benefits.

We would like to take the credit for developing the vision but in reality, we were just the simple ‘water carriers’- albeit ones that delivered this vision on time and underbudget.  Creating the vision was a real team effort. What was surprising was everyone from the top down were willing to take risks.  Those people who worked and volunteer at a community level shaped the vision and set its tone but were also encouraged by the Welsh Government officials and the board of Sport Wales who pushed for radical and innovative approaches.

But is it achievable? We believe it is. Wales has fantastic national resources, deep community spirit and a genuine national love for sport.  The vision sets the right path, it is owned by the people, developed by those who love sport and supported at the highest levels in government.

The vision will however only become a reality if focus on creating fun accessible experiences. And to do this we all are going to have to get out of our comfort zone.

Gwilym Morris

Barley blog: When not to protect your client’s reputation

Close Up Of Children's Feet In Soccer MatchThe last two weeks have seen hundreds of survivors of child sexual abuse in football come forward, in some cases waiving their right to anonymity to raise awareness of the issue.  At the time of writing, 17 police forces are investigating allegations of historical and current abuse within football and the NSPCC has revealed that referrals from calls to their football abuse hotline more than tripled the amount made in the first three days of the Jimmy Savile scandal.

In a recent piece on Radio 4, a comment from Jim Gamble, the former Chief Executive of anti-paedophile agency CEOP struck a chord with me.  He cautioned against football clubs “putting reputation before children”.  With further accusations of cover ups arising throughout the week, it’s left me wondering whether PR agencies are part of the problem.

There is big money to be made in crisis communications – defending clients against media storms when the proverbial hits the fan.  PRs will often find themselves privy to confidential information which could destroy their clients’ reputations were it in the public domain.  Often, there are tough decisions to be made as to which clients an agency is willing to represent.

It is for each agency to decide which clients they are comfortable taking on.  My own lines in the sand have, in the past, been drawn at the fur and arms trades and I know others who have chosen not to work with the meat industry or tourism accounts for countries where it is illegal to be gay.  I would hope that most agencies have the flexibility to allow their people to opt out of working on clients which clash with their individual moral and ethical values.

However, this goes beyond ethics.  My concern is whether our industry is playing a part in protecting the reputations of institutions, at the expense of putting an end to the horrific abuse that has persisted for decades.  The impact of such abuse cannot be over-estimated.  Through our work with the Clinic for Dissociative Studies we see the lifelong devastation that comes from the sexual abuse of children.  Every day that an abuse is not reported, the abuser remains at liberty to shatter more lives.

As the chairman of the FA Greg Clarke said this week “Institutionally, all organisations in the old days used to protect themselves by keeping quiet and closing ranks. That’s completely inappropriate and unacceptable today.”

I urge my fellow agency heads to review their relationships with any institutions that might be embroiled in current and future abuse allegations and consider whether it is right to continue to protect their reputations.  They should also make it clear to their staff that their duty of care is more important than client fees.  Any individual with concerns over their clients’ behaviour should keep notes which include times, dates and records of conversations and report anything you believe to be illegal at the earliest opportunity.

The NSPCC’s football abuse helpline can be called 24 hours a day on 0800 023 2642.

Sam Williams, Partner, Barley Communications

Barley Blog: Health Secretary to ban large puds?

bun-261677_640Communicating clear messages to tackle obesity seems to be getting harder. Witness May this year when the National Obesity Forum published a report which backed eating more fat. Dr Aseem Malhotra called for a change in message advocating: “eat fat to get slim, don’t fear fat, fat is your friend.” The result? Four Forum members resigned and the Royal Society for Public Health responded saying it was a “muddled manifesto of sweeping statements, generalisations and speculation.”

And what about government’s role?

The government’s childhood obesity strategy ignores one key message channel altogether – clamping down on marketing sugary drinks to children – which Public Health England and those on the National Obesity Alliance had advocated. Significant criticism has been levelled at the strategy and so the government has recently tried to wrestle back some control: cue last Friday’s front page of the Times with Jeremy Hunt’s call for restaurants to reduce sugar in puddings and cut portion sizes.

Reformulation – the jargon for cutting too much sugar, salt and fat from the food and drink we consume – no doubt has the potential to make a significant difference. If the food we buy is healthier to start with, we all win right? Seems logical. Some people will point out that puddings should be sweet – they are, after all, desserts or sweets.

Substance not size

Jeremy Hunt also called for smaller portion sizes. Whilst it seems rational that a smaller slice of chocolate cake will do you less harm than a bigger slice, is smaller size the right message? I remember speaking about this (over a good lunch of course) with a former client, Professor Jean Pierre Despres. He told me, it’s what you eat and the quality of the food on your plate that are more important, rather than portion sizes.

Genetics and obesity

Last week I listened to a different professor, John Wass, speak on obesity to a packed lecture theatre at the Royal College of Physicians. Prof Wass spoke about the data that suggest that a surprisingly high proportion of us may be genetically pre-disposed to being overweight. If your mother and father are obese, there’s a fair chance you will be too. But aren’t lots of us quite fatalistic about healthcare: if the message is obesity can be genetic, isn’t there a risk that too many of us will simply accept the situation and give up trying to lose weight. So communicators trying to get helpful information to the public will be more interested in another study which highlighted that despite a genetic predisposition to obesity, a healthy lifestyle including physical activity can lead to weight loss: most of us (but not all) can do something about our weight.

But there are solutions

Thankfully there are solutions for obesity. This is the message that we as communicators need to be pressing home. And there’s good reason to push – obesity is a financial headache for the NHS and it is now being linked with certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and many more conditions no one wants. For most of us the solutions will revolve around what we eat; drinking more water and fewer SSBs; and how much exercise we can cram into our daily routine. For some people bariatric surgery is an effective option (more so than drugs apparently at the moment by a ratio of 3:1).

Clear communications

A whopping 66,159 academic articles have been published on obesity in the last ten years and the messaging on this issue is, at very best, fragmented. With so much scientific debate and disagreement, comms professionals have a leading role to play to ensure a consistent message to the public that can be understood and encourages action.

Here are my top tips for communications on obesity.

  • Stay positive and focus on the solutions people can take
  • Make use of the science that says it’s what you eat, drink and how much you move
  • Encourage measurement – particularly waist size and BMI
  • Strike innovative partnerships to tap into different audiences
  • Use a carrot, not a stick
  • And repeat. Again and again as obesity is possibly the biggest threat to our individual health and public finances. And surely one of the easiest to tackle.

James Ford, Partner, Barley Communications