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

Fiona Inston is Public Protection Manager at Lancaster City Council. Her work covers a range of areas, including food, health and safety, environmental protection, private sector housing – and even pest control and emergency planning.

“Ultimately we exist to protect the public, to reduce health inequalities and to improve people’s lives. These aren’t always quick wins. If you’re trying to change big things like life expectancy and climate change, these are long term goals.

“No two days are the same. Sometimes it’s reactive – if there’s flooding, or if there’s an outbreak. The rest of the time our work is proactive: things like food premise visits, air quality monitoring and working on planning applications.”

“The danger is that our value is only recognised after people get hurt.”

Despite the range of work Fiona and her team carry out, much of it is carried out behind the scenes.

“We’re a really diverse and adaptable workforce – for example we have health and safety knowledge, we are skilled in outbreak management, we could do contact tracing, we support businesses. But a lot of what we do goes under the radar – I think we’re undervalued.

“The problem is that our work is difficult to measure. A colleague said to me once that we’re the lifeboats on the ship: we’re absolutely essential but no one really notices the lifeboats until the ship goes down. The danger is that our value is only recognised after people get hurt.

“I wonder how many people’s lives we’ve saved. We’ll never know.”

Although her team have the resources they need to carry out their work, Fiona has seen a different story in other areas of the country.

“It’s fair to say that nationally some areas are seeing statutory services being cut back, which means they can’t always be done properly. I know that in some councils, Environmental Health Officers I have asked don’t carry out prosecutions because there isn’t time.

“The role of Environmental Health will be absolutely key when businesses re-open.”

“The cuts have created a focus on the ‘numbers game’ – so on quantity not quality. Decisions by national bodies haven’t helped, for example the deregulation of health and safety has also eroded the understanding at local level about why health and safety is important.

“It’s a challenge. Most people I know in the profession are fighting for resources.”

Fiona sees Environmental Health having a crucial role as we recover from the Covid-19 crisis.

“The question as we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis is how do we raise the profile of Environmental Health? The role of Environmental Health will be absolutely key when businesses re-open, helping them adapt, diversify and grow stronger.

“I hope that the Environmental Health profession will be more recognised and valued after Covid-19.”

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