In times like these we remember just how connected we all are, and how much we depend on each other. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that, despite our differences, most of us want others to be safe and are happy to do our bit. It has also shown how much we value the institutions and professionals who are working so hard to protect us.

At Unchecked, we think our public bodies do amazing work keeping us safe in every area of life – looking out for our health, for our rights at work, for the safety of our families and for our natural environment. This web of public protectors, often unseen, are our country’s immune system.

We’re speaking to public protectors about the vital work they do, and the changes they’re seeing as a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

Photo of Rob Couch, environmental health advisor

Laurence Dettman is Chief Port Health Inspector with Hull and Goole Port Health Authority, where he has worked since 1968.

“I’ll be 70 next year and still love my job which can be quite stressful as well as rewarding.

“As Chief Inspector, my role is that of strategic manager, but from time to time I still like to get out and about in our Humber Ports area which covers the North and South Banks of the Humber.

“My team have to be very flexible and are trained over a long period in every aspect. We never know what could happen on any given day and I think most of us like it that way. We have to be able to react promptly, or as necessary, to any situation.

“For example, we’ve been involved in recent years with an increasing number of illegal immigrant arrivals in containers and trailers brought by ship. Often, they’re found within food consignments which then have to be assessed by us for fitness for human consumption. We usually have to supervise the disposal of the whole contaminated consignment.”

“We never know what could happen on any given day.”

Much of the work done by Laurence and his team covers a range of environmental health issues – from supporting shippers, importers and other businesses by carrying out inspections, to examining catches from large factory fishing vessels. They also deal with pollution prevention and control.

But the focus and scale of their work is set to change in the near future, with more responsibility for checking food and goods imported to the UK.

“Imported food controls aren’t a large part of our duties, since most of the food entering through our ports is of EU origin and has freedom of movement under EU law. This will change beyond our comprehension when the UK leaves the EU.

“We’re told that import checks on EU food will be enforced. The big question of increasing concern is with what and whom? I’ve estimated that to do this I would need to recruit at least another 10 officers and we currently have insufficient inspection facilities at the ports.”

“The Port Health Authority is largely funded by levies on the three Local Authorities we cover, but increasingly we’re able to charge importers and industry for the services we provide. Our levies haven’t increased in real terms for many years and I’m proud of that.

“However, times are rapidly changing, and I’m concerned that local funding arrangements won’t be sufficient or a fair way of providing our essential service.”

“We’ve been challenged locally by the Covid-19 pandemic, dealing with several positive cases amongst crew aboard vessels in the area.”

The Covid-19 crisis has brought new challenges, although protecting people’s health is something that runs through the Port Health Authority’s history.

“Infectious disease control was the main reason the Port Health Authority was set up in 1887, seeking to prevent the many epidemics of cholera, smallpox, polio and plague – and we’re still tasked with doing the same these days, albeit now with different diseases.

“We’ve been challenged locally by the Covid-19 pandemic, dealing with several positive cases amongst crew aboard vessels in the area. We’ve had to react and adapt very rapidly. We have a new normal but can’t wait to meet as a team again as we miss the old office routine and banter.

“I think we can learn from the experience and realise how quickly our lives can be disrupted and normality can be changed for us all. I hope that we can maybe re-jig our lives according to what really matters in this life. Good health is often taken for granted.

“I would hope that Government will also look at a better and fairer way of funding the port health service without so much reliance on local council tax payers.”

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