'Use us to fight the virus. It’s our job'

EHPs urge government to put them on the front line against Covid-19.
19 March 2020 , Katie Coyne

EHPs are ready for the challenge of the Covid-19 public health crisis – but some are concerned they’re being overlooked as an important resource.

While many EH departments are striving to support their communities, protect vulnerable individuals and prevent local businesses from going to the wall, some have complained that the government’s plans may not appreciate the extent to which they can help.

At Westminister City Council, EHP Jessica Tabois and her council colleagues were given between 30 and 45 minutes to vacate the building on Wednesday (18 March) and told to work from home, a measure that will be in place for a minimum of ten weeks.

The council has suspended food inspections and is running a rota to respond to high-risk scenarios if and when they occur.

“I feel like I’ve only just qualified as an EH officer last year and I could do something under the public health remit.

“I want to be put on the front line because that’s what my job is, and I am qualified for it. I have got all the skills, we can assess the risks – that’s what I came into the industry to do. Our skills are diverse and that we are trained to help. I even asked my manager to second me to Public Health England.”

Tabois said that as an individual she doesn’t know how to help and that the government needs to work out a plan as to how to deploy EHPs’ unique skills.

“It’s like EH is being told to ‘sit out’ leaving our colleagues in the Department of Health to deal with it, who already have a lot on their plate. Why are we being left out when we are eager and keen to help? I shouldn’t be sitting on my hands.”

EH consultant John Machin, also thought the profession was being sidelined. He said: “From a professional point of view, it has made me think that we’re a bit sidelined in this. There is no specific mention of EH officers in the Part 2a isolation orders. I know we don’t have the numbers like we used to, but there are more EH officers than public health consultants.”

Public Health England has said it is not planning on calling EHPs to assist in Part 2a isolation orders. Machin also questioned the practicalities of enforcing an order while also complying with the rules – that you stay two metres away from the individual, and stay in someone’s company for no longer than 15 minutes.

“How are you going to apprehend someone if you can’t get close to them – how is this going to work?”

Machin added: “If you look at it in terms of public health and saving lives, maybe we should be involved in making sure the vulnerable are being properly looked after whilst adhering to isolation?

“With our local knowledge, training and experience in investigations and looking at infectious disease, you’d think we’d be in a good position to help.”

Noise consultant and EHP Chris Hurst also couldn’t understand why EHPs were not being called upon. His consultancy, Three Spires Acoustics, works in the events industry and was lined up to do work with Glastonbury Festival, Park Life, and Euro 2020 Fan Zone, which have all been cancelled or postponed.

Hurst said: “My business is devastated so I am thinking what else can we do? We are well placed to help but there doesn’t seem to be that interface between PHE and EH.

“We should be helping and assisting wherever we can. Maybe it’s a lack of connectivity but I am sure there’s got to be even the simplest tasks, like collecting samples and data entry, that we can help with.

“I think there will be a lot of food inspections and noise inspections suspended. There could be a lot of EHPs sitting around with not very much work to do. They are qualified people, so use them.”

Emma Caddick, section leader EH (public protection) at Wolverhampton City Council, said she understood the frustration, but suggested that the profession will probably be called upon in the coming weeks.

She said: “We have just suspended food inspections but we are doing complaints and dealing with high-risk work. We are making assessments about whether they can go out to visit or not. At the minute things are changing every day.

“Management are looking at the skills of the officers and where the pressures are. There’s a chance – because EHPs are quite diverse with a range of skills – they can go into a range of areas, but it would be too early to say where. I think EH officers will get used but it’s just ‘where’. But I can understand the frustration. I think we will be redeployed but when services start suffering.”

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