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Nottinghamshire County Council’s outgoing public health director says country will face similar threat to Covid in future

The public health director who led Nottinghamshire through the Covid pandemic believes with “some confidence” the country is at risk of a similar threat in the future.

Jonathan Gribbin, Director of Public Health at Nottinghamshire County Council, opened up about his five years in the role ahead of his retirement next week.

Vivienne Robbins will take over as acting director of public health from February 1 pending the recruitment of a permanent director.

Director of Public Health for Nottinghamshire, Jonathan Gribbin. Credit: Nottinghamshire County Council.
Director of Public Health for Nottinghamshire, Jonathan Gribbin. Credit: Nottinghamshire County Council.

The role is about improving the health of the local population – which has come with its rewards and challenges, Mr Gribbin said.

Mr Gribbin said: “There’s a lot of planning and preparedness that goes on across Nottinghamshire to address a wide range of potential threats and hazards, whether it is flooding or pandemic disease.

“Without putting a timescale on it, we can say, I’m afraid, with some confidence that sooner or later we will potentially face a similar threat again.”

Mr Gribbin led the population through the Covid pandemic as he was thrust into the spotlight as a public health expert.

He was also part of the decision which saw Nottinghamshire placed under some of the strictest restrictions in the country in autumn 2020.

When asked, Mr Gribbin said he did not wish to discuss how the Government handled the early days of the Covid pandemic.

He told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “Even before we went into Covid, across the country we saw the healthy life expectancy was already plateauing off.

“If you look across a county like Nottinghamshire, there are stark inequalities.

“The challenge we face this side of the pandemic is making sure that prevention is and remains the priority that it absolutely has to be.”

Describing the nature of the work during the height of the pandemic, he said: “It was long days, the work was very challenging, it was prolonged.

“Sadly for many people, it did involve loss, severe adversity and immense strain.

“It did for a little while thrust me into a spotlight that was unexpected and demanding at the time.

“There are parts that in retrospect were a privilege to be involved in, but it didn’t necessarily feel like that. I don’t think anyone looks for that responsibility for the nation.”

In October 2020 Nottinghamshire entered ‘tier three’ restrictions meaning people could not meet socially indoors or in most outdoor places with anyone they did not live with. Hospitality was closed and people were told to work from home.

Nottinghamshire residents had to endure some of the strictest measures in the country at the time.

Mr Gribbin said: “Thank goodness for us all that it feels well behind us.

“For a period of time we were involved in negotiating with the government for the introduction of controls in Nottinghamshire that none of us would’ve wished for.

“It was ghastly. But the judgement I made was that without further restrictions, we faced the possibility of overwhelm within the NHS which would’ve been far more disastrous. Thankfully that didn’t transpire.”

The UK Health Security Agency declared a national health incident last week due to a surge of cases of measles in the West Midlands.

Nottingham’s MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination rates are below the national average, with one in four people having never had the jab.

Mr Gribbin said: “There’s an upturn in the number of measles infections but the good news is we have a safe and effective vaccine.

“Measles is very infectious and for some, leads to very serious complications.

“My focus tends not to be on vaccine conspiracy theories, but reminding people of the reliable evidence they can refer to themselves.”

The public health director role also covers issues including smoking and vaping, obesity and addiction.

Mr Gribbin added he was “enormously excited” about the government’s proposals for a smoke-free generation.

The policy will make it an offence for anyone born on or after January 1 2009 to be sold tobacco products.

He said: “Vapes are massively less harmful than smoking. It has a really important role to play in reducing the harmful impacts of tobacco.

“That said, the number of children using vapes has tripled in the last three years [nationally].

“That is a concern. I am very concerned about the marketing to children and young people.”

He added: “Issues that relate to obesity and healthy diets are really important to us.

“We can work on it in Nottinghamshire, it’s also something we are crying out for action on at a national level.”

He cited a standout memory as his director of public health annual report, which highlighted the experiences of those who have experienced adversity and deprivation.

He said: “As well as wanting to shine a spotlight on those stories of courage and hope, it was an opportunity to give voice to what some of those people have to say to organisations like the county council.”

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