Lisa McCann, Service Manager – Environmental Health (Food & Workplace Safety), Fife Council and President of REHIS Council, discusses how both her roles have adapted and how she hopes that positive changes made with hygiene continues into the future.

1.         Describe your work before the pandemic? 

Before the pandemic, I had not long taken up the role of President of the Institute at the 2019 AGM. I was involved in various REHIS Council meetings, Committees and working groups, as well as various forums related to my role as REHIS Council Member with responsibility for Occupational Health & Safety matters. 

Part of the role of President is to work closely with the Chief Executive who is responsible for the day to day running of the Institute, including the office and staff. A significant task that started and continued in to lockdown was the recruitment of a new Chief Executive after Tom Bell announced he would be stepping down from his role at the end of March 2020.  Work was also well underway on the 2020 REHIS Annual forum, which was sadly cancelled due to the restrictions of the pandemic.

In my role as a Service Manager for the Environmental Health (Food & Workplace Safety) Team at Fife Council, I have responsibility for managing a team of Environmental Health Officers, Food Safety Officers, Enforcement Officers and others, undertaking activities related to food safety, health and safety, port health, waste duty of care and communicable diseases.

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

Where to start? …In terms of the Institute, I supported the then acting Chief Executive in her work to get the REHIS office working remotely. This included meetings of the REHIS Council, Committees and Working Groups which have all gone virtual. It did not stop there, work is ongoing to help our Approved Training Centres to teach remotely and at present in a blended fashion, where the route map and current restrictions allow. 

There were also difficult decisions to be made in regard to finance. As with all organisations, the Institute has felt the impact of the global pandemic and subsequent restrictions resulting in the sad, difficult decision to place the majority of REHIS staff on furlough.  Staff are in the process of returning to the office in a limited fashion to cover the key activities and tasks of the REHIS office. I would dearly like to thank all of our staff for their hard work, understanding and support in these unprecedented times. 

One piece of positive news was that Jackie McCabe was appointed to the role of Chief Executive as of 1 September 2020 following a successful recruitment campaign.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Centre’s AGM which was held virtually using MS Teams.  Many thanks to the Northern Centre for the invite to join them, it was a lovely opportunity to engage with members, which has been a rare occurrence in 2020.  All going well, I plan to attend the Southern Centre’s AGM later today. 

In a more Covid specific role, I continue to sit on a number of different groups representing the Institute and Environmental Health, and maintain dialogue with various agencies and organisations. This includes the joint Environmental Health and Trading Standards Covid Expert Panel, Scottish Government Working Groups, PHASS (Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland), HSE and HELA. These all contribute to the collaborative efforts in tackling the Covid pandemic and its impacts. 

These groups give a bridge to my day job. I can safely say, along with many others, that my role as a Service Manager in Environmental Health is nowhere near the same as it was at the start of 2020. Understandably, the focus of the work activity relates to Covid19.  This work continues to evolve as we learn more and move through the Scottish Governments Route Map, and particularly with the recent restrictions announced by the First Minister a couple of days ago on the 22 September.

From the end of February, I have supported and continue to support Fife Council and NHS Fife in their activities to combat Covid through the established forums of Incident Management Teams (IMTs) and associated STAC – Scientific Technical Advisory Cell. This is in addition to work of the working groups, providing advice from an environmental health perspective to various colleagues across the organisations. 

Information for Fife Businesses was published on the Council website and, along with our Trading Standards colleagues, we have undertaken a mix of proactive and reactive interventions with local businesses.

We have provided support for the local NHS Fife Test & Protect Team including through the secondment of Officers. This has proven to be beneficial to both organisations, especially recently due to the reported daily increase in Covid cases. This has resulted in a rapidly increasing workload consisting of NHS led Problem Assessment Groups and/or Incident Management Team Meetings and following up setting referrals. 

Setting referrals are notifications of premises that have been associated with positive cases. When these are received, they are triaged, and officers either follow up remotely or if required with a physical visit. When visiting, officers must follow risk assessments and safe systems of work.

The other work of Environmental Health has not gone away, while some work is currently paused, responding to complaints, concerns and various applications are triaged and actioned accordingly. The upcoming Brexit challenge as the transition period ends at the end of the year is also never far from my mind, and I’m sure this is the same for many others working in Environmental Health.

3.         What are/were the challenges? 

These definitely included technology and the sudden move to home-based working. These have been largely worked through, and the world of virtual meetings is well established with most people and organisations adapting quickly. It now wouldn’t be a meeting if you don’t hear, ‘you are on mute’ and ‘sorry legacy hand’ in a MS Teams meeting.  I have also had very interesting conversations with children of team members and helped celebrate important milestones such as losing teeth and the tooth fairy visiting. I’m sure some just look for an excuse to use their mum’s (or dad’s) laptop, but it does bring some much-needed light hearted moments to the working day.

The major challenge for me is not a new one, but the current pandemic puts a spotlight on it. It is one of resources, and in particular Environmental Health Officers and Food Safety Officers. Before the pandemic, the Institute, the Society of Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland and others had been actively looking at solutions. This work is ongoing and will help going forward but unfortunately there is not a 'quick fix'.  It was pleasing to hear the Scottish Government commitment to support local authorities for additional environmental health staff, as referred in the Institute’s statement of 23 September 2020.

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

Changes that I hope will last beyond the pandemic period include the positives that have come out of these unprecedented times.  These include better, quicker collaborative working, improved virtual working and that, for most part, you can work from home. However, for the latter my thoughts is that a more balanced and blended approach is what is needed, to get the benefits of both home working and the work environment,  promoting and maintaining team spirt. 

As an EHO I also hope the improved hand and respiratory hygiene practices stick and become everyday habits for everyone well into the future.