Liam Petrie, Environmental Health Officer at Glasgow City Council who has recently qualified describes the diversity of the role of the Environmental Health Officer during the pandemic.

“What can I say? the past twelve months have been a whirlwind, from passing my professional exams last October to now, but where do I start?

I started with Glasgow City Council in the January of this year after working for Aberdeenshire Council for four years, where I completed my professional training and qualified as an Environmental Health Officer. My role lies within the Business Regulation team where I cover the West side of the City. During the initial three months in Glasgow I was able to expand my knowledge in both food and health and safety by inspecting a wide range of businesses within the City and responding to some weird and wonderful complaints.

In March, when Covid-19 arrived in Scotland everything seemed to change in a flash; routine food inspections were suspended and the “lockdown” restrictions meant that home working was now the default. Once things started to settle and we had a better idea of what was happening in the world, management asked for volunteers to help out with various Covid-19 related initiatives. Being the keen bean that I am, I was happy to volunteer and get back out there to help out as much as I could. It was also a valuable opportunity for personal development.

Due to the increasing numbers of Covid-19 cases, and associated deaths, within NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHS GG&C) area there was the potential for mortuary facilities in the region to reach capacity. Under Part 6, Regulation 87 of The Public Health Scotland Act 2008 Local Authorities have a responsibility to provide, or ensure the provision, for its area premises and facilities for the reception and temporary storage of the bodies of persons who die in the authority’s area. As a result, NHS GG&C and the Local Authorities in the area had to initiate a programme of collaborative working to develop emergency procedures in the event that additional facilities were required. The result was the creation of a temporary mortuary facility that could be used in the event that the number of fatalities continued to rise.

Environmental Health staff were tasked to carry out site visits to monitor Health and Safety and Covid-19 procedures that were in place within the facility. We were trained to ensure the structures were being maintained and to identify that caskets were being placed on the racking correctly. Fortunately, the facility was not needed and lay empty during my monitoring visits. It was an eye-opening experience and really made me realise the impact that Covid was having. It also made me realise how important and diverse the work of an Environmental Health Officer is.

In May, I was given the opportunity to volunteer as a contact tracer (CT) for NHS Test and Protect. Before the system went live there were several virtual training events. These were designed to help us utilise the NHS systems (CMS) and to allow access to the personal data required to carry out tracing calls and to follow GDPR.
During the training, I had to learn new skills and adapt to the workings of the NHS systems and get used to working with a script and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). But, the biggest challenge at the beginning was the actual phone calls to positive cases. I was very much used to calling complainants who had food poisoning allegations or confirmed food poisoning, but calling someone to discuss their whereabouts, who they had been in contact with and then to sometimes listen to the fear in their voices as this was all still ‘new’ and they had no true understanding of what was going to happen, or they didn’t want to get friends/family into trouble! That had to of been one of my biggest challenges so far.

Myself and five colleagues were trained up to be ‘Expert Mentors’, with responsibility to provide advice and guidance to other non-EHO contact tracers. Our job was to assist the contact tracers on calls. The non-EHO CTs were individuals from all different backgrounds, some of whom had never done anything like this before. My main function was logging into calls and listening to what the contact tracer was saying/doing, ensuring they covered all the specific pin point areas required( for example, any recent foreign travel), and to assist with any concerns the patient or the CT may have during the tracing interview. I had to ensure the CTs would remain calm if they were faced with any difficult calls, to which there were very few. As an EHO, I am very good at keeping people calm in difficult situations, and that has definitely helped me in my role as CT.

When Test and Protect was originally launched we were taking around five calls a day as it was pretty quiet, little did I know it would soon change! A s the restrictions eased and businesses re-opened across the city my role rapidly changed and I became a contact tracer and an expert mentor all in one. This involved contacting individuals who have tested positive for Covid-19 and completing a questionnaire to find out where they had been during their infectious period and identify any close contacts they may have generated. This gave me the opportunity to develop my investigative and communication skills. Often individuals refused to co-operate and provide their details as they were concerned that friends and family would get into trouble if they had been breaching the rules.

In these more challenging situations I had to use my communication skills to explain clearly the reason why this information was important in the fight against Covid-19. Once I had conveyed/explained this to the index case they felt more comfortable providing the information. My Environmental Health student training and work experience really helped with this as I have occasionally found myself in a situation of conflict whilst carrying out inspections and I have been able to use the same skills and techniques when carrying out contact tracing.

When I am not working for Test and Protect I am often tasked with following up with businesses where a known positive case has visited, to try and identify contacts in a hospitality or workplace environment. During these visits I have to carry out a dynamic assessment of the control measures that are in place and determine whether additional contacts will have occurred within the premises. Initially some businesses were reluctant to co-operate, however, by engaging with the business I was often able to turn the situation around and influence change. My knowledge of the contact tracing process really helped here as I was able to explain the implications from a different perspective.

Along with the hospitality assessments, I have recently been involved in close contact services assessments. These include hairdressers and barbers, and if needed, tattoo studios. As close contact services are high risk due to the requirement for close proximity to an individual we started an initiative to assess Covid-19 controls in these businesses. Prior to carrying out any dynamic assessments I studied the retail sector guidance to check what can and cannot be carried out while in a certain level of the tier system. Luckily, at this time Glasgow was in Level 3 and hairdressers and barbers were allowed to operate, but with additional mitigations in place.

During the assessments I looked at cleaning and disinfection, Test and Protect procedures, isolation procedure for symptomatic staff, any high risk procedures e.g. upper lip or nasal waxing and their overall knowledge of covid-19 guidance and compliance. Throughout any assessment I make reference to the 4 E approach where non-compliance is observed. The four E’s are; Engage, Explain, Encourage and Enforce. For example, if breaches have been identified, then I engage with the owner by the quickest possible means, to explain the non-compliance and encourage them to ensure compliance to prevent any form of enforcement being carried out. If after 3 of the 4 E approaches have been carried out and they still will not comply, a further visit would be carried out with two officers and potentially a police officer to ensure compliance, and that may be in the form of a Prohibition Notice under Regulation 22 the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 or a Notice of Direction under Regulation 3(1) of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Directions by Local Authorities) (Scotland) Regulations 2020. These notices would be used to either close the premise until compliance was achieved or to give direction on a specific area i.e. to prevent any high risk zone waxing being carried out. Overall, throughout the different roles, assessments, patrols, complaints and phone calls I have carried out, I can quite clearly see how diverse the role of an EHO is.

And finally, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that 2020 has not been the year I expected it to be, but I wouldn’t change it. Working as an Environmental Health Officer during a pandemic has given me the opportunity to develop my skills, experience and knowledge in a rapidly changing situation which will undoubtedly make me a better Environmental Health Officer. “