EH has been a key workforce in the pandemic response yet is facing a recruitment and funding crisis in England, and Westminster is being urged to act.
Last year eight out of ten local authority EH officers in England were redeployed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their varied skillset and infectious disease training meant they were able to help with a wide range of tasks from advising businesses to contact tracing and running food banks.
Yet there is a shortage of experienced qualified EH officers. Due to financial and other pressures local authorities are delaying recruiting and not taking on more trainees or apprentices, which will be the 'future lifeblood' of the profession.
The CIEH Workforce Survey found 87% of local authorities are relying on agency cover and 56% have had vacancies unfilled for more than six months. Worryingly, 31% of those surveyed felt the delivery of some statutory EH duties were at risk due to lack of resourcing in 2019-20.
In response, CIEH is making 20 recommendations including reforms, increased funding for regulatory and public health EH services, ringfenced funding for EH apprentices, and the establishment of a chief environmental health officer for England.
Dr Phil James, chief executive of CIEH, said: “Environmental health professionals have played a huge role during this past year, from ensuring that businesses re-open safely to supporting vulnerable members of the community and putting together strategic plans locally.
“Now it is time to focus on this multi-skilled profession and provide support to the people who have been working tirelessly to protect us in recent months.
“Our research clearly points to shortages of fully qualified and experienced officers and we need to put plans in place right away to ensure that we are supporting young people and career changers to enter the profession as well as providing the necessary funding to support employers in training the next generation of environmental health practitioners.
“We know that many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic and many have had to rethink their career path. This is therefore a way for the Government to begin to address the shortages of environmental health professionals and help to get people back into work.
“We welcome the Cross-Government review of regulatory services and urge the Government to adopt the recommendations in this report and its own review in order put this vital profession on a more sustainable footing.”
Of the EH officers redeployed in the pandemic: 98% were involved in enforcing business restrictions; 97% assisted in advising businesses on trading safely, 95% developed COVID policies and procedures; 78% managed local outbreaks; 69% were involved in emergency planning, and 59% were involved in contact tracing. Others were involved in community support programmes such as food banks.
Survey responses were gathered from English district councils, metropolitan district councils, unitary authorities and London boroughs between November 2020 and February 2021. Some 177 responses plus 34 partial responses were included.
The survey also found finances are continuing to shrink, with 24% of environmental health departments reporting decreases in their budgets, with just 17% reporting increases in the last financial year. Currently there are 3,300 fully qualified EHPs working at district level local authorities in England.
Some 56% of local authorities said they did not have any paid or unpaid trainees in EH in either 2018/19 and 2019/20. The reasons for this included: not having the budget (66%); and not having capacity to mentor (52%); with just 20% saying there was no demand from students.
Read more about the survey’s findings in the May issue of EHN, out at the beginning of May.