The importance of environmental health

Ross Matthewman, head of Policy and Campaigns at CIEH, explains the vital role environmental health professionals play in keeping our communities safe and protecting our environment

The environmental health profession has never been more vital than it is today. The twin challenges of the United Kingdom’s imminent exit from the European Union, and of the Covid-19 global pandemic, has shone a light on the essential role environmental health professionals (EHPs) play in supporting our businesses, keeping our communities safe, and protecting our environment.

From food safety to housing standards, and from public health to environmental protection, EHPs are at the forefront of efforts to improve the health of our country.

This year has made their role all the clearer.

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been monumental in highlighting the need for local authorities to be properly resourced and for their local expertise to help shape central government’s approach to public health. The response to Covid, by governments across the United Kingdom, of imposing a series of national and regional lockdowns, alongside mass testing and tracing, necessitated a significant reliance on local authorities to implement these policies.

Considering the central role local authorities were playing, and the pressure they were under to deliver on these policies, it was regrettable that implementation plans and guidance were initially being drawn up solely in Whitehall and disseminated with limited input from local authorities and key stakeholders with valuable knowledge of their communities. However, this has greatly improved, and government is now showing a real willingness to work closely with local authority partners in a more coordinated approach.

There has also been a growing appreciation of the importance of the environmental health profession by central government. EHPs have been on the frontline in enforcing business compliance with lockdown restrictions and providing guidance and support for businesses to become Covid-secure. EHPs have also proven to be a valuable resource in supporting test and trace. Earlier this summer, CIEH created a voluntary register of EHPs eager to utilise their specialist knowledge to help Public Health England set up a successful test and trace system.

Environmental Health Together
The growing recognition of the role of environmental health in combatting Covid by government led to a public commitment from the Prime Minister, in the House of Commons, to create a national register of EHPs for local authorities to use as a vital additional resource. This pledge saw CIEH working in partnership with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), and the Local Government Association (LGA) to create and promote this register to local authorities across England.

Now named Environmental Health Together, and officially launched at the end of October, the register is hosted by the LGA, quality-assured by CIEH, and backed by MHCLG and NHS Test and Trace. Aimed at anyone who has environmental health qualifications and is available for work, the register provides a resource for local authorities to match EHPs against their specific requirements for additional capacity to tackle COVID-19 in their areas.

While currently only local authorities in England will be able to recruit from it, it is anticipated that many roles will be based remotely, allowing registrations from across the UK. Already hundreds of applications have been rolling in. A testament to the profession.

The Brexit conundrum
Dealing with a global pandemic, unprecedented in modern times, is a challenge on its own. However, the environmental health profession also has a key role to play in the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

The essential issues of imports and exports, of food supply and crime prevention, are those that again rely heavily on EHPs. With the fate and nature of trade between the UK and the EU, and between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, dependent on the result of ongoing negotiations, a visceral sense of confusion and frustration pervades all attempts to prepare for the end of the Brexit transition period.

What tariffs will ultimately be applied to goods moving to and from the continent? What food will now need to be inspected on arrival in the UK? How will businesses and ports cope with the extra paperwork? How will food inspectors ensure that food crime doesn’t explode as the new systems are being put into place?

All of these questions highlight the importance of the environmental health profession to our nation’s food supply and in ensuring the safety of our food.

CIEH has been vocally campaigning to not just protect, but to enhance the UK’s food and environmental standards after we leave the EU. Improving air quality has been a central tenet of our approach.  

It is estimated that outdoor air pollution causes 40,000 deaths in the UK every year. In addition, poor air quality currently costs the UK government £16 billion annually due to effects of poor health and reduced labour productivity. It is something that desperately needs addressing.

Historically, EU Directives have driven our environmental standards, including legal requirements on air quality. Leaving the EU means we will now be responsible for setting our own environmental standards. Our members are clear, the UK must use this opportunity to pursue an ambitious programme of improving our nation’s air quality. This will require legally-binding targets and the provision of proper resources to local authorities and EHPs working on the frontline to deliver environmental projects. Through our membership of the Healthy Air Campaign coalition, CIEH has been working hand in hand with organisations such as Client Earth and the British Heart Foundation to engage with the UK government and fight for improvements to the Environment Bill. The environmental health profession is committed to working with government to usher in an era of higher environmental standards.

With the spotlight finally falling on the importance of environmental health to our country, it is imperative that the challenges facing the profession are outlined too.

With successive reductions to local authority budgets over the last decade, the workforce capacity of environmental health has dwindled. Fewer people being increasingly called upon to take on ever more responsibility is an unsustainable situation. The ability of EHPs to ensure food, housing, and environmental, standards are upheld in our communities is being curtailed.

In light of Covid-19 and Brexit, Westminster seems to have awakened to the need to support the environmental health profession. However, this can only come through protecting local authority budgets that fund EHPs, and by improving recruitment through modernising the professional qualification routes to becoming an EHP.

It is a long road, but a necessary one if the profession is to survive, thrive, and meet future challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and an unsustainable food system.

For now, CIEH will continue to beat the drum for our members and to highlight the crucial role they are playing in the historic issues facing our country.

Further Information:

Event Diary

The Security Event is set to be the first major exhibition to take place in the sector when it opens its doors on 7-9 September 2021 at the NEC in Birmingham and for the first time it will also encompass the National Cyber Security Show.

digitech21 will seek to demystify the increasingly complex technology landscape and will showcase a host of public sector best practice case studies and the very best solution providers, each of whom are helping organisations to transform and improve the way in which the public sector delivers services to the citizen.