Louise Cunningham, Team Manager – Environmental Protection, Aberdeenshire Council and Senior Vice-President for the REHIS Council.  Louise's contribution discusses how the pandemic has raised the profile of the Environmental Health profession and how positive changes can be made from the digital transformation for working. 

1.         Describe your work before the pandemic? 

Prior to the pandemic I was Team Manager for South Aberdeenshire and lead for Environmental Protection within Aberdeenshire Council and Senior Vice President at REHIS. 

I would travel regularly to Edinburgh to chair the REHIS Management Committee,  and to attend council and other committee meetings. 

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

Since the pandemic started, all staff shifted to working from home automatically. We are very fortunate in Aberdeenshire that we were already well equipped with the IT and systems that support home working. We recognised quite early on that our current geographical set up didn’t suit the challenges being faced by the Service whilst we were based at home. The Service therefore transformed from having generalist officers to three specialist workstreams – Covid, Food and Environmental Protection, in addition to assisting with contact tracing for a couple of months over the Summer. 

I’ve led the Environmental Protection team, overseeing the day job and normal demands expected by the Service. I have also assisted with a number of webinars that we hosted to assist our hospitality premises keep abreast with the number of changes to guidance and legislation, these have since been uploaded to YouTube, another first for our Service! 

3.         What are/were the challenges? 

The challenges remain significant, personally the first couple of months of the pandemic were the most surreal, not only was the work something I had never imagined, I had to postpone my wedding with 12 weeks’ notice and become accustomed to Zoom to catch up with family who live in the central belt. 

Engaging with my team has also been a challenge, as we are a sociable bunch and having to rely on technology for this has been difficult. I know they are missing Friday scones!

Looking forward, the uncertainty remains the biggest challenge for everyone, both professionally and personally, wondering when this becomes the ‘new normal’. However, with challenge, comes opportunity. There has never been a more opportunistic time for the profession to demonstrate the skills and professionalism at the core of the front-line response to protecting the public health of Scotland, and I couldn’t be prouder for the way the profession has stepped up to the challenges, liaising with Scottish Government, NHS, colleagues in local authority and the business community. 

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

I do hope that the digital transformation within REHIS, since the start of the pandemic, is taken forward as an opportunity for the Institute. Not only has it significantly reduced our spending on travel and had a positive impact on climate change, it has been proven to support the effective operation of the Institute, whilst also being more accessible to those living and working in various geographical locations. 

I don’t necessarily see a return to working from offices being the default work format, and I must say I think professionally, we have worked well from home. There is an additional level of flexibility and enhanced work life balance, where the discipline is there to maximise this.