Brian Auld, Head of Safe Buildings and Assistant Secretary to the Board for the Church of Scotland General Trustees gives an insight into EHOs working in private practice and non-regulatory roles who continue to drive forward improvements in risk awareness, risk reduction and compliance. 

1.         Describe you work before the pandemic? 

My role as Head of Safe Buildings and Assistant Secretary to the Board is to lead the health and safety and compliance function of the Church of Scotland General Trustees. The General Trustees are the buildings and land arm of the Church of Scotland. We are the owners of over 4000 buildings including Churches, halls, manses and other commercial and domestic buildings. We are the owners of the largest number of historical buildings in Scotland, and the majority of the land that we own is tenanted for agricultural and commercial purposes. 

The vast majority of the Church of Scotland congregations are centred in the community, and our buildings and land are used for a variety of different purposes. This includes regulated child care, education, hospitality, performance arts, healthcare and support services as well as for worship. As well as providing strategic oversight to the board in matters relating to the safe use of church buildings and land, I have operational responsibility for the safe buildings team. The team responds to a demanding case load covering health and safety, food safety, tenancy management, environmental protection, construction and public health. We are also a REHIS registered training centre and provide free community training to our congregations and the wider community relating to food safety, health and safety and risk management. 

2.         What have you been doing since the pandemic started? 

When lockdown was announced in March 2020, we immediately issued instructions and guidance to all congregations relating to the safe closure of their buildings. We issued detailed guidance, risk assessments and operational procedures to over 200 congregations whose buildings remained open to provide essential community services including food banks, key-worker child care provision and local resilience groups. We developed and hosted a number of live webinars relating to infection control and health and safety, and our REHIS Food Safety training was moved entirely online. 

In the second week of April, I led the development and publication of the National Church of Scotland’s reopening of Church Building guidance. This was a substantial document including practical advice to congregations on how to reopen their building safely and undertake Covid-19 risk assessments. The guidance was adopted by other faith-based organisations and we are now just about to publish version 8. 

I convened the Church of Scotland Covid-19 working group in April 2020 with senior representation from across the Church of Scotland family to ensure a consistent, evidence-based and timely response to the pandemic from the national office. 

I was invited to join the Scottish Government’s Faith Leaders Group tasked with the implementation and development of the Scottish Government’s guidance on Places of Worship. This continues to be an excellent avenue to work with Faith Leaders from the many different denominations in Scotland, and liaise directly with both the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, and the National Clinical Director of the Scottish Government. Both the Faith Leaders and Church of Scotland Covid-19 working group continue to meet weekly. 

Over the past 6 months, my focus has been on continuing to develop both local and national guidance relating to Covid-19, ensure that church buildings are reopened and occupied safely, supporting the large variety of activities returning to church buildings, and responding to an ever-increasing case load of enquiries. I have also been working with a number of environmental health departments since the pandemic began to improve their understanding of the Church of Scotland’s approach to Covid-19, and respond to their enquiries around the occupation and use of church buildings. 

3.         What are/were the challenges? 

Many of the challenges that I have faced at the start of the pandemic still remain. The Church of Scotland does not just operate in Scotland, but across the world. It has been challenging trying to keep up with how the pandemic is evolving across the world and to ensure that continually evolving geographical differences in risk factors, legislation, policies and guidance are considered.

Church of Scotland congregations rely on the work of volunteers, many of who fall within the high-risk categories and therefore were required to shield. Not only did this present a practical challenge in terms of looking after our buildings and land, but there was a direct social and emotional impact on our volunteers, church life and the wider community. There continues to be a degree of hardship felt in some congregations relating to some restrictions in places of worship. For example, the prohibition on congregational singing has been difficult alongside the restrictions on how many people can attend worship or community activities. 

However, as an EHO, I know that effective risk communication is pivotal to ensure that the church environment remains safe, and that we have to adapt our communication strategies to ensure that everyone understands the reasons for a particular course of action to reduce the risk of transmission and save lives.

Another challenge has been the evolving nature of both the legislation and government policy around Covid-19. Although congregations operate primarily under the places of worship guidance, church buildings are also used to support a variety of other activities. We have to consider other sector specific guidance relating to hospitality, sport, unregulated and regulated childcare, support services, education, performing arts and events to name a few. When one sector guidance has changed or has been updated, often there has been a significant delay with the other sector guidance being updated. The result is that there have been times when there is conflict and confusion between the different sector guidance and specific policies during the pandemic. This is had significant strategic and operational impact on both the safe buildings team, and the wider Church of Scotland. 

4.         Do you think any of these changes will last beyond the pandemic period? 

I am proud of the role that the environmental health profession has contributed to the Covid-19 response, not only locally but also nationally and internationally. Although the profession has traditionally been centred in local authority activities, those EHOs working in private practice and non-regulatory roles continue to drive forward improvements in risk awareness, risk reduction and compliance. There are a number of significant challenges ahead, including opportunities for those who wish to enter the profession having access to suitable academic and professional training opportunities. The important role of the environmental health workforce has been elevated from being considered as holding a purely regulatory function, to a key influencer in the public health agenda. This momentum must be sustained. Direct environmental health representation both within Government and within relevant national agencies should be increased. We, as members of the Institute, all have a role to play to ensure that the profession use this unique and almost once in a generation opportunity to take a place at the top table; and it is vital not to lose this opportunity.