Students returning to Sheffield is coronavirus fear which is 'keeping public health officials awake at night'

Directors of public health have been thrust into the limelight as the pandemic presented the “big one” that all in the sector were waiting for, one of Yorkshire's top officials has revealed.

Sheffield City Council's Greg Fell joked "even my kids want to be a public health specialist at the moment", but he said the strain placed on him and his team - as well as equivalents around the country - had been immense with no prospect of their work slowing down in the coming months.

Speaking to The Yorkshire’s Post’s political podcast, Pod’s Own Country, Mr Fell said that while usually public health departments, based at local councils, will usually look at a variety of areas from ensuring the vulnerable can get flu jabs to sexual health services, right now they are “wholly focused on response to the pandemic”.

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He said: “If you ever needed an articulation of why health and public health is important to economic and social outcomes, here it is, this is it, you'll never get a better articulation than now.

Greg Fell - Director for Public Health for Sheffield. Photo: JPI Media

“Because if we get it wrong, then we'll all end up in lockdown with all of the economic and social consequences that come with that. So accordingly, most of us are doing very, very little else apart from the direct response to coronavirus, which will be ongoing.”

And he said: “I think that will be ongoing for two years. I'd be surprised if it's not two years.”

Mr Fell said he and other public health directors watched “with great trepidation” as reports started to come out of China of the new virus in late December last year.

“You always watch new viruses with great trepidation,” he said. “Mostly they fizzle out to nothing, and occasionally they turn into something, we saw with SARS 15 or so years ago and MERS, that they did turn into something for fortunately, [but] both didn't turn into massive things.

“MERS didn't turn into a massive thing because it was actually really quite virulent, and it killed people before it could spread too far.

“But this one [coronavirus] is. The vast majority of people who have this illness are quite well, actually. The reality is most people are quite well, therefore it spreads and it spreads really readily.

“So when it became apparent that it was spreading quite quickly, most public health professionals just stopped dead in their tracks and said: ‘Ah, this one might be the big one’.”

He said that it had been expected that a big pandemic was coming.

“These things are a matter of when not if,” he said.

But dismissing suggestions the situation was “nightmareish” he said: “It is what you're trained for, ultimately, you always hope these things don't happen on your watch but it has therefore you deal with it.”

He welcomed the shift towards a more localised approach to tackling the virus, and said that would likely to continue until a vaccine was found, which he did not expect to happen until midway through 2021.

“The key area that needs to improve is the ability to really get stuck into communities that we all find quite difficult to reach. They're not hard to reach communities, they are communities we find hard to reach. And so getting boots on the ground for me in Sheffield, in Darnall, in Burngreave, in a way that only local trusted stakeholders and local boots on the ground can do - that just can't be done from a call centre 300 miles away.”

And this would be even more crucial as winter approaches, as he warned: “Every director of public health in the country is concerned about winter.”

He said one of the challenges in a city such as Sheffield, which has two universities, would be the impact of students returning.

He said: “Whilst universities, the two of them in Sheffield, have done a sterling job in terms of preparation, no doubt about that, students are students and they all want to be out partying and we all know what student behaviour is like, so finding ways to influence that - yes of course be students but be students safely - will be a tricky job, that's one of the things that does keep us awake.”