The Kitchen Bench Diaries: reflections on 2020

27 October 2020, Debbie Wood, Executive Director of Membership & External Affairs, CIEH

Laptop on a kitchen workbench

It's 23 March. I'm sitting at my kitchen bench awaiting the formal announcement of the national lockdown.

Having been given the heads up that it was on its way, I popped to the shops to fill the freezer, and started thinking about how this was going to be a challenge personally and professionally.

Little did I know that seven months later, I would still be sitting at the same kitchen bench waiting for the latest set of announcements about the next phase of localised lockdowns. Just how much has happened in those seven months is hard to believe, and reflecting on what the next period might throw at us makes me slightly nervous, but also strangely excited.

Slightly nervous (which is probably a big understatement), because the environment in which we lived in the run-up to Easter 2020 feels very different from the one we are in now, as the kids prepare for a very different Halloween. In the spring, we knew little of the enormity of what was coming our way, but there were buckets of community spirit and a sense that we were all in this together.

Everyone seemed to be pushing in the same direction. National politicians, eminent scientists and the medical profession were all focussed jointly on doing everything to ensure that the public's health came first. We all knew that to successfully manage the pandemic would require national, regional and local government to work together with local communities.

At CIEH, we simply put our heads down and refocused all our resources to supporting our members (who we knew would be on the frontline protecting the public's health). Little did we realise at that time, just how much work would be involved and how many hours we would all (willingly) put in because we were doing our tiny bit.

And through the summer, we got through it, together. I watched from my kitchen bench as slowly but surely businesses and communities got back on their feet, supported by the advice and support of our members. While the journey certainly wasn't without its battles, we had to fight for a role for environmental health in contact tracing, ensure EHPs were recognised on the key worker list, push back on the centralising focus of the Government’s approach, fight to have our voice heard on reopening of business guidance.

And then finally, from my kitchen bench I watched the Prime Minister announce our proposal for a register of Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) at a No. 10 press conference. National recognition had been given to our championing of the value of the profession I am proud to represent.

And when I look back at the quality of the COVID-19 resources on our website and review the stories, guidance, news and media alerts, and reflect on the sheer numbers of members and non-members who joined our weekly (sometimes twice weekly) webinars, I feel very proud and reassured. Because having spent all that energy putting resources in place to support our members, we know what we have systems and processes ready to fight whatever might be thrown at us in the next phase. We have strengthened our community, and we know our members will rise to the challenge and continue to do all that it takes to continue to promote the public's health. And be recognised for it.

But still sitting on my kitchen bench this October afternoon, I am apprehensively waiting to hear the latest news of tiered lockdowns across the regions and nations; listening to the ever fractious debates between national and local politicians about who knows best; the evidence from the scientists who now seem to have differing interpretations; the arguments which seem to triangulate around whether the public's health is less or more important than economy and jobs; and the ever increasingly complicated set of rules across the UK which the public finds hard to rationalise. It feels all too uncertain. Who do we believe? Who do we trust? What will happen next?

What I do know, however, is that whatever the next six months brings the team at CIEH will be working hard on our members' behalf (mostly from our kitchen benches). Whatever direction the pandemic goes in next, we will continue to provide the necessary support through our CIEH-conversations webinars which I know have been valued by so many.

We will continue to promote the profession and the invaluable work you have done through our #ChooseEnvironmentalHealth campaign. We will report back on our survey of the environmental health workforce which we expect will demonstrate the impact the lack of investment has had over the last 10 years, and then fight for the recognition it deserves.

We will continue to talk and listen to environmental health employers to ensure we are delivering qualified and competent professionals, at the speed you require. We will campaign with others to ensure any changes to the regulatory framework only enhance and support environmental protection. And we will continue to lobby government to ensure our food standards and safety are not compromised as we transition out of the EU.

While we have so much to do, we are committed to focusing all our efforts and resources into delivering the things that matter most to our members. This is your organisation, and we are working hard to support you and the profession. And just as we pulled together as a community at the start of the pandemic, we need to continue to strengthen the voice of our community by joining together and putting the public's health centre stage.

After all, that is what environmental health is all about…

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