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

Julie Barratt is the incoming president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.

The public know what they want: safe food, clean air, good safe homes to live in, a clean environment with clean air and safe water. Environmental Health Officers ensure that all of these things happen.

But there are too few of us trying to do too much. There is no point me repeating the data about the cuts to Environmental Health, but we have been slashed to the bone. And while there was little money before this outbreak, there may be considerably less afterwards.

Most people don’t hold much trust in businesses self-regulating, so it’s essential that a third party is there making sure that the public is protected. This is our role. And while all the old, traditional public health problems that date right back to Inspectors of Nuisances and the birth of local government are still there, now there are new challenges as well.

“While there was little money before this outbreak, there may be considerably less afterwards.”

And the new challenges move much faster, because the way we live has changed, and this changes the nature and scale of potential risk. Just look at Covid-19, which was round the globe in matter of weeks.

Environmental Health Officers have been crying out to get involved in contact tracing for Covid-19, it is a basic skill that we use all the time, dealing with food poisoning and other infectious diseases – we are part of every Outbreak Control team managing an infectious disease outbreak.

If we had been used for contact tracing from the start of this outbreak the value would have been enormous. We obviously can’t say that cases would have been prevented, but we certainly could have been advising people who had been in contact with infected people to self-isolate until we knew whether they were infection free. It’s a spider’s web, making sure that everyone who has or could have the disease is identified and control measures are put in place – for example stopping a teacher who is exhibiting symptoms from going into school.

“When it comes to something like this, no one agency can do it all, it’s about what we can all do together.”

In my experience as an Environmental Health Professional involved in tackling the spread of infectious disease, most people are quite reassured by the contact. It allows them to be on the look-out for symptoms, or gives them explanation for why they are not well, meaning they can take steps to limit the risk of further spreading it.

Technology can help, but is not the same as ‘boots on the ground’, nor does it have the human touch people want, to advise, to reassure, to enforce.

On a wider point this pandemic has demonstrated very clearly who the important workers are. They are the NHS staff, care workers, shop workers, bin men, delivery van drivers and even funeral directors. When it comes to something like this, no one agency can do it all, it’s about what we can all do together.

I hope that the appreciation of these groups will persist, and we need to make sure that it does.

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