Evonne Bauer, Executive Officer of Place and Community Planning, East Dunbartonshire Council is a Chartered EHO and currently Junior Vice-President of the Institute. Evonne’s contribution discusses the different aspects of local authorities’ response to this pandemic and how EHOs have been recognised as key players in the pandemic response.
1. Describe your work role with relevance to the pandemic?
I am Executive Officer of Place and Community Planning, at East Dunbartonshire Council, and manage a strategic portfolio covering a range of council services. My remit includes Community Protection, where the Environmental Health, Trading Standards, Licensing Enforcement and Community Safety teams lie. A further responsibility is Community Planning which has also been a key area involved in the local authority response to the public health crisis.
As a positive, and during the COVID pandemic, there has been excellent examples of joint working across a wide range of council teams and with our Community Planning Partners. Partner include the Health & Social Care Partnership (HSCP), Greater Glasgow & Clyde NHS Board Public Health Protection Unit, Police Scotland, Scottish Fire and Rescue and importantly the Third Sector Interface, communities and volunteer groups.
2. What have you and your teams been doing since the pandemic started?
The ‘Shielding’ work stream was the initial local authority response to the pandemic and I led in this work stream for East Dunbartonshire Council, which involved putting into place systems and processes locally, as required by Scottish Government.
Local authorities proactively contacted and offered support to all our shielding individuals (residents identified by Health Board/ GPs as being the most clinically vulnerable groups in terms of their existing health conditions and status). Those shielding were to remain at home with the aim of minimising their risk of exposure to the virus. Government support was provided in terms of a national assistance phone line, routed to our local call handlers, and the offer included the provision of priority supermarket delivery slots and food boxes for those unable to access shops or receive support from family or friends.
Importantly, our teams complimented this support with locally developed processes and arrangements and these support streams were further extended to identify ‘vulnerable’ members of our communities, through housing tenants, social work referrals etc. A local food distribution centre was established in a leisure centre offering delivery of food boxes to those identified ‘vulnerable’ but out with shielding categories, and also those not able to pay due to the impact of poverty or unemployment through COVID. Our local authority employees also provided regular social isolation support calls to socially isolated individuals. Across East Dunbartonshire, all support service were effective and very well received.
Joint working with the third sector interface and local organisations like Citizens Advice Bureau, supported the many council teams involved in this response by providing telephone helplines, shopping assistance and prescription delivery services.
As well as being part of the aforementioned activities, the Environmental Health and Trading Standards teams, worked alongside our business premises following lockdown, and during the transition to the Strategic Framework. This role is ongoing and includes providing advice and support, as well as enforcing compliance with the appropriate Regulations, and all requirements of the designated levels in hospitality, non-essential retail and close contact services etc. The most significant issues being COVID risk assessments of business operations, physical distancing, cleaning and hygiene including infection control measures.
EHOs are also working with NHS Board Public Health partners on contact tracing work for cases and contacts. Post return of schools in mid-August, then case liaison with education colleagues on a daily basis involving contract tracing in all schools and early years establishments. Problem Assessment Groups and Incident Management Teams have also been implemented for clusters and outbreak control, as and when required.
Currently across all local authorities then ‘Test and Protect Support’ work streams are ongoing, whereby those self-isolating locally are pro-actively contacted to ascertain any support needs. There is also assessment of financial needs including Scottish Welfare Fund and crisis grants, as appropriate, and the assessment for the Social Isolation Support grant of £500 for those unable to work and receive income because they or their child’s need to self-isolate. The criteria broadly extends only to those on benefits and universal credit. Similar to East Dunbartonshire, other local authorities have been administrating vouchers or cash payments to those families on the lowest incomes and who would normally receive free school meals/ clothing allowance while children are absent from education self-isolating due to having had close contact with a positive COVID case.
3. Highlight some current challenges?
Following lockdown, the local authorities produced recovery plans to allow resumption of services within the limits of COVID restrictions and guidance and aligned with risk assessments ensuring employee health and safety. This has involved the gradual re-introduction of services and remits, together with the continuation of the COVID response and support services. These issues in parallel has a significant impact on resources, and particularly when services have to operate in new and innovative ways, for example, one person per vehicle, limited and controlled access to offices/ depots, and working remotely/ from home, with reliance on less face-to- face and use of online virtual meetings to progress business.
The financial burden impacts of COVID response on all local authorities is a continuing major challenge and one that will feature heavily going forward. This is despite there being access to various grant funding to cover specific services and activities.
In relation to Environmental Health, Food Standards Scotland have advised during the pandemic period that ministers have provided flexibilities against the Food Law Code of Practice in recognition of the continued efforts of EHOs involved in the response. However, realistically this flexibility is likely to come to end early 2021. Further, additional duties continue around The Health Protection (Coronavirus)(Restrictions and Requirements)(Local Levels)(Scotland) Regulations 2020, as amended, and as statutory and other service functions are reintroduced, nationally this is causing significant resource pressures on local authority teams.
Fortunately, local authorities have been provided with Scottish Government temporary grant funding until 31 March 2022, to increase Environmental Health officer resources, and in East Dunbartonshire we are recruiting Public Health COVID Compliance Technical Officers to support the EHO role in compliance checks across local businesses.
As a challenge it would be remiss not to highlight the national impact of EU Exit from 1 January 2021, and a number of requirements that will be different particularly with regard to importing and exporting. The UK requiring its own food safety legislation and equivalency to EU legislation, and the evidence and supervision required on all food stuffs leaving for Europe as well as checks on imports coming from Europe. The work ahead with Food Standards Scotland on Border Control Posts and Export Health Certificates. The roles for Environmental Health, and for our professional colleagues in Trading Standards, cannot be underestimated.
4. The immediate future in this pandemic period?
In the immediate future local authorities will be supporting the Heath Board and our Health and Social Care (HSCP) partners in the roll out of the vaccination programme for COVID. In particular, the local arrangements and infrastructure organisation around vaccine delivery in the community setting.
The likely introduction of mass asymptomatic testing centres in local community areas will also be supported by local authority colleagues, through Public Health and Local Resilience Partnerships. Going forward, Environmental Health will be part of this team response and will continue with key public health roles in health protection such as business compliance, contact tracing and infection control.
To finish on a few positives while remaining in the depth of this pandemic. I believe the long-standing professional working relationships with Health Board’s Public Health and the CPHMs on all matters of health protection and outbreak control planning has been key to a successful local response.
Additionally, the work of the national professional COVID Expert Working Group of EHOs and TSOs to deliver consistent and effective responses and interpretation to the legislation.
Environmental Health Officers have both locally and nationally increased professional profile as a result of this public health crisis, and their well-developed health protection skills and knowledge are recognised as the key players at a local level and frontline in our communities responding to this pandemic to protect public health.