“I hope I never see the scale of this again” – Sheffield’s director of public health talks about a year of Covid

“Everyone worries about terrorism but a serious pandemic of an infectious illness has been number one on the national risk register for as long as anyone can remember.”

Thursday, 4th March 2021, 12:30 pm

Director of Public Health Greg Fell has been at the helm of Sheffield’s fight against Covid-19 and is giving an animated insight into it.

He speaks rapidly and uncensored, barely pausing for breath. There’s no sugar coating – “I’ll be a harbinger of doom” – but politicians, the media and the public can be sure they have the full fat version of the facts.

Public health directors cover four areas – health improvement which Greg describes as “fags, booze and no exercise”; health intellegence which looks at how the city shapes up and NHS and social care policy.

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Director of Public Health Greg Fell

The fourth area is the one which has consumed him for a year – health protection covering everything from chemical spillages to coronavirus.

“All four of those areas are within the typical day job of a Director of Public Health and their team but Covid has been the only thing most of us have done for the past year or so,” he says.

“We’re all trained to react and respond to incidents but this has been an incident that none of us have ever seen the scale of and I hope never to again.

“It will happen again, there’s no two ways about it because pandemics happen, but hopefully not on this scale.”

This is his third pandemic since his career in public health started in the mid 1990s, the first two being Aids and swine flu.

“HIV and Aids is still a pandemic,” he points out. “It’s a largely controlled infection, rates aren’t terribly high, and we’ve got amazingly good treatments, so we shifted from a disease that did kill people.”

He breaks off briefly to recommend the “stunningly good, brilliant” Channel 4 series It’s a Sin before continuing “You’ve shifted from a scenario where it kills people to where it’s a chronic disease that you live with.

“Fortunately swine flu didn’t turn into a humongous global event that everyone feared but this one sure as hell has.

“This is undoubtedly the big one. You hope as a public health professional you’ll only ever have one big one in your lifetime and I sincerely hope this is it.”

He’s had to give a lot of bad news this year and has been unswerving in delivering it.

“It’s a long way from over. You want to go back to the pub and so do I but I think we will be in a position where I will be the harbinger of doom for some time to come and I’m sorry about that in advance. I think we’ll be living with Covid and adapting to it for a long time to come yet.

“Everyone worries about terrorism and it’s horribly cataclysmic for a relatively small number of people but a serious pandemic of an infectious illness has been number one on the national risk register for as long as anyone can remember.

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“It was always only a matter of when, not if. No one imagines that it will happen on their watch and during their time.”

Unsurprisingly, his workload has gone through the roof. “When you’re cooped up in a spare bedroom it’s really easy to do 13 hours a day, I’ll just sort out this email or go to that meeting. Long days go with the territory but 13 hours, day after day, becomes tiring.”

When asked how he relaxes, he laughs. “You’ve got to make time to turn off and for me, intervention from head office was called for – Mrs Fell basically read me the riot act and said I’ll march out of that door if you don’t turn that flipping laptop off,” he says.

“You’ve got to make conscious time and effort to do it. It’s been difficult and I’m still not terribly good at it. You can’t just work nine to five but equally you can’t work 13 hours a day for a whole year. Sadly, the reality is that what’s largely happened so it’s been a bit of a tiring year.”

He’s concerned about the stamina and mental health of his team of around 25 people.

“They have worked exceptionally hard and I’m worried about maintaining the pace and level of work,” he says.

“I don’t think the whole of the city will be in the current state of frenetic response for the next calendar year but the public health team certainly will be.

“I worry about staff’s mental health, I should probably worry about mine a bit more, but we have to consciously think about wellbeing because the hours and pace of work is relentless.

“You’ve really got to think about protecting people, and occasionally reading them the riot act and telling them that they need to let go. It’s easier said than done, it’s been difficult and I do worry about their tiredness.”

A positive to come from all this is how the city pulled together when a call to arms was issued.

He adds: “It goes way beyond people that have the words ‘public’ and ‘health’ in a job title, the reality is most work is done by people in housing, welfare, social security and other sectors. All of the stuff that they do contributes to how healthy we are.

“The public health job is to be the architect, orchestrator, cheerleader, coordinator and connector.”

In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a digital subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Nancy Fielder, editor.