EHPs’ pandemic work is being highlighted in a new book calling for the profession to share their stories and expertise loudly.
COVID-19: The Global Environmental Health Experience captures a "moment in history” of the work of EHPs, their employers and professional bodies from the UK and across the globe carried out during the first nine months of the pandemic. It aims to “focus firmly” on their observations and experiences from the frontline.
The editor and lead author is Chris Day, who has worked in EH since 1975 and spent 17 years lecturing on EH at King’s College London. The book aims to recognise the profession’s “significant contributions” in protecting lives and livelihoods.
It also makes recommendations to provide “direction” and “inspiration” for the profession. This includes calling for a chief environmental health officer for England, and also calls for EHPs themselves to highlight their work and engage more widely.
Day writes that the “power of the pen” should not be overlooked and urges EHPs to become researcher practitioners, and to “write about their experiences, to reflect on what they and their colleagues have done, to consider whether it has worked (or not) and what implications it has for the future.
“Then – and this is the most important aspect of the recommendation – see that it is read by those in their social media network or magazine circulation and, if at all possible, see it submitted to a journal for publication (be it a paper, letter or commentary), so that it can be read and cited by other health professionals.”
The COVID-19 book sits in the Routledge Focus on Environmental Health series and is the brainchild of CIEH vice president Stephen Battersby, the series editor. It is Battersby’s attempt to provide an opportunity to share best practice and raise the profile of the profession.
Professional bodies can and do raise the profile of EH but Battersby argues that practitioners themselves “quite often” could do more. Battersby said: “EHPs - we are a funny lot - they are not necessarily reticent, but they're not necessarily very good at blowing their own trumpet.”
Asked how to make that leap, Battersby said it required confidence. “That you're not alone – I think that's probably one of the important things – or there is a group. Whether it's a group of [colleagues] or via an organization,” he said.
Another key element of the book is that it is hoped it can be used as evidence in the future inquiry into Westminster’s handling of the crisis. Being still in the midst of COVID-19, the plan is also to update the book in a year’s time.
Batterby added: “Even quite early on, I think people were suggesting there ought to be a public enquiry into the whole thing going back this time last year, because it seemed already that some mistakes, basic mistakes, have been made on the handling.
“And I just thought, ‘well, it would be quite good also if we had something ready-made that use could be made of at a time when there was a public enquiry’.”
Originally the book was conceived as having multiple authors but as the pandemic continued it became apparent that many of the authors would not have the time to participate as COVID-19 work took priority.
Rob Couch and Dr Surindar Dhesi stepped in to assist Day. The team gathered evidence using a range of methods including interviews and an online questionnaire but all the data was collected on the basis that it would be anonymised.
One of its many findings was that the majority of EHPs considered themselves “well-prepared” to meet the challenges of the pandemic – with comments gathered such as “Better than I could have expected” and “hugely” and “massively”. Respondents described drawing from a wide skills set, and from knowledge “they may not have had cause or reason to use for many years”.
However, the book also discusses some of the short fallings in preparedness for the pandemic, and how these could be addressed in the future. Positively, nearly half of respondents said they felt the pandemic had altered perceptions of the EH profession “for the good”, but there was a consensus that more needed to be done.
A local government EHP from Portugal wrote: “I hope that we are seen more in society as a profession with great importance in public health, as a profession of value, with great professionals. I hope that we have appreciation and respect, and that after COVID-19, we will not be forgotten again.”