More than half of local authorities in England are not taking on trainees or apprentices in environmental health because of funding and capacity issues, according to a survey.

The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) said findings from its workforce survey of environmental health professionals were “concerning.”

A third of Environmental Health Practitioners (EHPs) in local authorities specialize in food safety and hygiene, followed by a quarter in private sector housing and a fifth in environmental protection. Only 4 percent focus on food standards.

Trainees and apprenticeships are key routes into the profession, as practical training is a vital part of the qualification process, according to the CIEH.

Responses were submitted between November 2020 and February 2021. In total, 177 of 320 district and metropolitan district councils, unitary authorities and London boroughs completed the survey. Another 34 local authorities gave partial responses.

Food hygiene and safety services at risk
The poll found nine out of 10 environmental health teams used agency staff this past year because of shortages in resources or delays in recruitment, while 56 percent of local authorities had vacancies that had been unfilled for six months or more. Food hygiene inspections were most likely to be part-outsourced with agency workers used to do lower risk visits.

About eight in 10 EHPs working for local authorities were redeployed this past year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. They were classed by the UK government as key workers.

Nearly a third of respondents said the delivery of some statutory environmental health duties was at risk because of resourcing issues. Food hygiene and safety was cited the most at 38 times.

At 24 percent, more environmental health departments reported decreases in their budgets than the 17 percent that recorded rises in 2020/21. In some cases the need to deliver food safety controls helped to increase resources.

A third expected their authority’s 2021/22 budget for environmental health services to decrease whilst 20 percent think it will increase and 36 percent expect it to stay the same.

In 2019/20, half of local authorities didn’t have any apprentice or trainee, whilst 70 percent didn’t take on any apprentices in environmental health. Budget restraints and not having capacity to mentor were the primary reasons but a fifth said no trainees were taken on because there was no demand from students.

Most environmental health departments and services seem to be unchanged in the past six years but below a third reported that some services have been stopped. Respondents said that food safety training to individuals has had to stop and there has been a reduction in food sampling programs.

How to improve situation
To support the profession, the CIEH wants the government to provide ring-fenced funding to pay for the salaries of environmental health apprentices and increase funding to support regulatory and public health functions in local authorities.

The group also called for the creation of a chief environmental health officer in England who can give expertise and oversight, linking the work of EHPs in local authorities with policy ambitions of central government. This role already exists in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Phil James, chief executive of CIEH, said EHPs have played a huge role during this past year including ensuring that businesses re-open safely.

“Now it is time to focus on this multi-skilled profession and provide support to the people who have been working tirelessly to protect us in recent months. Our research clearly points to shortages of fully qualified and experienced officers and we need to put plans in place right away to ensure that we are supporting young people and career changers to enter the profession as well as providing the necessary funding to support employers in training the next generation of environmental health practitioners,” he said.

“We know that many people have lost their jobs during the pandemic and many have had to rethink their career path. This is therefore a way for the Government to begin to address the shortages of environmental health professionals and help to get people back into work.”

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