The Sun’s campaign to get 50,000 volunteers signed up to help at Covid-19 vaccine hubs has reached its target after 18 days.
Sun editor Victoria Newton, who did her own volunteering shift stewarding cars at Epsom Racecourse on Friday, told Press Gazette the news industry has shown what an “incredible public service” it provides during the pandemic.
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Anyone can sign up to volunteer – no training needed – and would be asked to work two six-hour shifts to help vaccination centres run smoothly and efficiently, such as by stewarding arrivals, ensuring social distancing and identifying anyone who needed additional support.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at the Downing Street press conference on Monday: “I want to thank each and every one of you and the Sun newspaper for leading in this national effort.”
The UK’s biggest commercial newsbrand launched the Jabs Army campaign on its front page on New Year’s Day, which Newton described as a “bold statement – start of the new year, this is what we need, the vaccination is our only way out of this horrific pandemic, so it just felt like a good day to do it.
“I have to say in terms of all the campaigns I’ve worked on at the Sun over many, many years, this one has really taken off. I think because we’re all in this mess together, it’s something that’s affecting every single person in Britain.”
Newton (pictured) said she was “very, very happy” with the campaign and thanked readers for signing up “fast and furiously”.
It reached 7,750 sign-ups in its first 48 hours and a steady stream of about 3,000 per day for the whole first week.
Newton added: “It’s been very rewarding but it’s not over yet. The work only really starts now.”
Upon her appointment as editor in chief in February last year, News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch praised Newton’s “campaigning spirit” and the way she “cares about Sun readers’ lives”.
Newton told Press Gazette on Monday it had been instilled in her when she joined the Sun 20 years ago that the newspaper “should always be showing that we have a heart and we’re compassionate and that we care about people as do our readers”.
“You’re only ever as good as your readers and you know instantly when a campaign’s working by the feedback that you get. I’ve just been inundated with lovely letters.”
Newton decided to launch the Jabs Army push after running a Christmas campaign with the Royal Voluntary Service for people to sign up and video call lonely people.
“It was a really rewarding campaign because we ran it at a time when people didn’t have much money, people had been on furlough and lost their jobs and we weren’t asking readers for any money,” she said.
“Most Christmas campaigns are asking for money. We were asking for people’s time. So it went down really well both with the readers and outside of the Sun, we had a huge reaction.”
It was while the Sun and RVS teams were working together on that campaign that someone mentioned the RVS’ next project would require thousands of people signing up to support the vaccine rollout and Newton thought “that’s what we need to do”.
She said the pandemic had shown “what a vital public service role newspapers and media organisations play during a crisis like this” and that it “makes you feel good about what we do”.
“Our readers really turned to us, whether it was in print or online, because they trust the information we’re telling them,” she said.
“You can see it in the numbers that people are desperately wanting to know ‘what should I be doing?’, ‘Is this coronavirus? Is it flu?’, all those sorts of public interest and human interest questions our readers were firing at us – the phones were going crazy.
“So there was only one story in town and I felt that we were really giving a huge public service – especially with so much disinformation out there on the internet as well, it really shows the vital role that newspapers can play.”
Newton, who moved from the Sun on Sunday to edit the Sun just weeks before the pandemic hit the UK, said she was most proud of continuing to operate the newspapers, websites and apps throughout the past year.
Before the pandemic, she had a team of between 400 and 500 people in the News UK building at London Bridge. This shrank down to a core team of about ten to 15 people, with everyone else working from home, at the height of the first lockdown and again this month.
“We didn’t even know whether we had the right tech to make it work… That is my proudest thing that we’ve managed to do, I think – and sustain it over all that time.
“And it’s not just the guys in the office, it’s also the wider chain, the delivery drivers and the printers that kept things going.”
The Jabs Army campaign won cross-party political support and praise from celebrities like Good Morning Britain’s Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, sports stars Gary Lineker and Anthony Joshua, and Bake Off’s Prue Leith, who was one of the first public figures to post online about getting the jab.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the campaign was a “brilliant example of the power of collective action” while Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson said it was “vital” because without volunteers the task of the medical professionals doling out the vaccines would be “even harder”.
It was also backed by big firms including BT, Morrisons, British Airways, PaddyPower and Sky TV.
Volunteers can still sign up here or by scanning the QR code in the Sun newspaper.
Picture: News UK