Rob Couch is based in the public health department of three local authorities in the East of England. He investigates the needs of some of society’s most vulnerable people and develops ways to improve their health and reduce inequality. And one day a week he turns his hand to research and campaigning, to raise awareness of why environmental health research matters.
“There’s no typical day. I might find myself immersed in data or policy, developing plans, meeting with service providers, users or charities, or responding to questions about our work.”
Rob’s work spans across many different areas of everyday life: food, water, sanitation, clean air, workplace safety and housing. “Many of our achievements remain invisible, but working to safeguard and improve community public health in such a broad range of areas is the greatest privilege and vocation.
“I was originally attracted to environmental health by a desire to protect people and planet and, as I’ve seen more stuff over the last 25 years this passion – sometimes anger – has increased, not diminished.
“Reviews of the last 200 years of environmental health interventions suggest we’ve never been properly funded. But perhaps it’s a damning indictment of our society that we still choose to invest so little in areas created to prevent and detect problems early.”
“The way Covid-19 politics is changing the art of the possible is quite remarkable.”
Like most people, Rob’s work has been profoundly affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Since February he has been supporting his health protection colleagues in tackling the crisis, including carrying out contact tracing for Public Health England. But the unprecedented situation has thrown up some challenges.
“My past environmental health work included lots of health protection so some of the work is familiar, like contact tracing, answering questions and developing guidance. But Covid-19 is new for everyone and we’re on a steep learning curve every day.”
Some of the changes brought about by Covid-19 have also shown the great capacity people have to respond to and overcome challenges. “The way Covid-19 politics is changing the art of the possible is quite remarkable.
“Finding accommodation for our rough sleepers has always been a challenge, but within days we were able to procure a local hotel for all of them, plus additional capacity.
“I’ve also got to know more people in the last few weeks than in the last two years – admittedly by phone and email. The collectivism I’ve observed and experienced is unprecedented and gives me great hope.”
“The last few weeks has made public health more visible, particularly in the West, than we have probably experienced since World War Two.”
With current events putting public health issues into the spotlight, Rob predicts that there could be profound effects on the way people view public protections – but warns that we can’t afford to take these protections for granted.
“The last few weeks has made public health more visible, particularly in the West, than we have probably experienced since World War Two. We could see greater investment in public health over this period, but I fear during this time we might also experience economic instability and inequalities of a scale we have never seen before.
“Another lesson of public health history is that short term gains are easily lost, must be defended vigorously and re-learned by every generation.
“I hope the pandemic will give public health professionals like me the courage and confidence to make their voices heard.”