Martin Keeley, Environmental Health Manager at West Dunbartonshire Council discusses how Environmental Health is arguably the most diverse and adaptable professional public health service in Local Authority and how the technology advances made during the pandemic may cause a shift in how we work going forward.

1.Describe your work before the pandemic

The Environmental Health Manager is responsible for leading the service, setting its objectives, planning delivery to meet those objectives and ensuring the financial and professional resources are in place to deliver Environmental Health for West Dunbartonshire  communities. 

That was a busy and challenging body of work pre-pandemic and I’ve been fortunate to have a fantastic group of professionals to work with, making all of that happen across the service areas from Food Law to Health & Safety regulation, Pest control to Houses in Multiple Occupation, Contaminated Land to Noise control and much, much more. It seems a long time ago before the pandemic changed life for everyone.

2.What have you been doing since the pandemic started

It was busy before and it’s changed and become even more busy since the pandemic started. In public health and pandemic response terms, Environmental Health is arguably the most diverse and adaptable professional Public Health service in Local Authority. It was part of Council resilience planning before the pandemic and was already linked directly with NHS Public Health for public health protection. It’s a core Public Health workforce that provides public health protection and these key aspects of Environmental Health lead to it supporting the Council in developing its pandemic response quickly and effectively. 

The service was an early adopter of technology and this helped support good communication and service delivery from early on in the pandemic and continued to provide all of its services even when Council offices closed. As a result, visits and enforcement activities continued, advice and support for businesses was developed and delivered and other council services key to communities were supported throughout. We continued to deliver all of Environmental Health services during the pandemic as well as developing covid regulation procedures and working with Police, other agencies and Council services to deliver public health protection throughout the pandemic, investigating outbreaks  and being involved in planning for the additional deaths the pandemic produced. 

As well as providing for regulation of the changing covid restrictions during the pandemic and working closely with Regulatory and other colleagues, Environmental Health has provided Test & Protect function for the Education sector. This has meant working closely with Head Teachers and Education colleagues to ensure delivery of covid measures designed keep schools safe and reduce the risk of transmission and it’s been a great success. 

One other key area I’ve been fortunate to lead is the development of covid testing in the Council area for asymptomatic cases and symptomatic cases. Working with Council and NHS professionals throughout, has allowed the delivery of testing in communities which has been a key measure in the pandemic response and is set to continue for as long as it’s needed.

When I look back over the past year, It’s with great pride for the Environmental Health service in West Dunbartonshire and the huge amount of work it’s delivered under difficult circumstances and changing demands. In any organisation, it’s the people that are key to success and that’s absolutely true here.

3.What are / were the main challenges

The challenges have been many. Losing an office base; new and regularly changing restrictions; the volume of work the pandemic has generated; high case numbers, deaths in the community and an ongoing demand on Environmental Health staff and other resource throughout the pandemic. I could go on but I prefer to look at the positives and each challenge has been met with diligence and professionalism and a desire to bring improvement. Those are the core qualities of Environmental Health and the ones I promote in the Service.

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

There are some different ways of working that have shown their value during the pandemic, more efficient ways of delivery that I’ll take with me. The technology has been a help and there are aspects of Environmental Health that could benefit further from technological aid. It’ll help the professionals do what they need to do with less travel and better use of time. 

It’s likely that society will keep some of it’s adaptations and it’s possible that how people live in and around towns and cities may change with the use of technology making remote working possible. That will create both opportunity and challenge and with more of life being delivered through remote service, Environmental Health and services in the Council will have to respond to that. 

I’ve yet to see anyone accurately predict the future and I’m not about to try here. It’s likely we’ll have a blend of old and new after the pandemic and what I hope for is an improving society and to have the professional and other resources to provide excellent public service to support improvement.