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

Sandra Westacott is a former Port Health Officer at Southampton Port Health Authority.

“I was the first female Port Health Officer when I joined the Port Health team in Southampton in 1990. It wasn’t always easy.”

“It’s our job to remove dangerous products. If we don’t, then they make their way onto the market. For example, we were coming across a new psychoactive substance, which was popular in prisons, and we knew that deaths were occurring because of it.

“A normal day would be anything up to 50 containers of food to be examined. Quite a small percentage of the things that you looked at were wrong, as most of the cargos are compliant.

“But I’ve found all sorts: illegal meat products, toilet rolls and sweets that were contaminated with rat droppings, food likely to be full of undeclared allergens, mislabelled herbal medicines. Really shocking stuff.”

“It’s not just a question of finding the needle in the haystack, it’s about finding the haystack.”

With the sheer volume of containers to check, making sure nothing gets missed takes experience at knowing what to look for.

“Finding these things is tricky – it’s not just a question of finding the needle in the haystack, it’s about finding the haystack. First you have to find the right container. Usually you would do just a short examination of just the back of the container, but sometimes you would do a full turnout.”

“You have to know what to look for, and that comes with knowledge, experience and training. And you can’t get that without budget. We didn’t have a budget for training for years – and there’s no question that things slipped through the net.”

“The problem is that Environmental Health isn’t sexy – until it all goes wrong.”

Ultimately, budget cuts left Sandra concerned that the Port Health Authority didn’t have the resources they needed to carry out their job.

“Across many Local Authorities, the last five years had just been budget cuts, budget cuts, budget cuts. Staffing levels have fallen hugely. The problem is the Environmental Health isn’t sexy – until it all goes wrong.”

During the Covid-19 crisis, the Port Health Authority’s work is all the more important as some businesses take advantage of the situation to try and avoid the usual scrutiny for their products.

“What worries me at the moment with Covid-19 is that we are increasing our imports from the rest of the world and there will be people who are taking advantage. They will know that they system is under pressure. There is nothing more political than not having food on the shelves, so the priority is to get food in, but my concern is that there just aren’t the people on the ground to make sure it’s all safe. How many consignments are getting missed? I think it’s huge.

“I think that, after Covid, we need to get better at working together, expressing concerns, being open and honest with about where things are working and where they’re not. It’s the only way we can discover how to do things better.”

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