Public health staff shortage and exhaustion warning as COVID-19 infection rates rise

"Local public health teams have gone above and beyond over the last two years to support their communities through the pandemic. It is clear that staff are exhausted from this effort and there are growing gaps in the public health workforce."

A close up of a light grey coronavirus with red spikes against a dark grey background

Public health workforce shortages and staff exhaustion concerns are growing as COVID-19 community transmission rates rise, councils warn today.

There are growing concerns among councils that staff have been left exhausted from the strain of tackling the pandemic in local communities over the last two years, with local authorities finding it increasingly challenging to recruit and retain staff.

An exclusive survey by the Local Government Association of councils has found that more than half say their public health services are running with disruptions as a result of staffing shortages.

One sixth of councils said public health is one of the service areas most at risk from a lack of staffing capacity.

As the LGA and the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) begin their virtual annual Public Health Conference today, they are calling for greater support from the Government to enable councils to retain and recruit local public health officials.

LGA analysis shows that the public health grant, which provides dedicated funding for all council public health functions, has been reduced by 24 per cent in real terms since 2015/16, equivalent to a total reduction of £1 billion. The greatest reductions have been in deprived areas with the highest levels of health inequalities.

Councils and local Directors of Public Health are calling on the Government to commit to long term funding increases, including an extension of the Contain Outbreak Management Fund, so public health services can retain expertise they built during the pandemic and can stand up support to tackle future variants.

To mark the conference, the LGA is also publishing its Annual Public Health Report, to mark 10 years of public health becoming a local government responsibility. It shows the important early intervention role that locally commissioned public health services have played over the last decade, taking pressure away from acute health and care services and keeping communities healthy.

Cllr David Fothergill, Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board said:

“Local public health teams have gone above and beyond over the last two years to support their communities through the pandemic. It is clear that staff are exhausted from this effort and there are growing gaps in the public health workforce.

“Although restrictions have been eased in England, community transmission is on the rise again and COVID-19 has sadly not gone away.

“To tackle this – alongside the wide range of services they provide, such as tackling childhood obesity and treating substance misuse - councils need a real terms increase in their public health grant as well as long term funding assurances from the Government.

“Our report demonstrates clearly how work to protect and improve health and wellbeing has expanded greatly since the transfer of public health responsibilities to local councils. With the right support, local public health services can keep our communities healthy and keep the pressure off our under strain NHS and care systems.”

Notes to editors

1. The joint LGA and ADPH Annual Public Health Conference will be held on Wednesday 23 March and Thursday 24 March. The LGA and Association of Directors of Public Health will be meeting virtually across two days for their Annual Public Health Conference today with Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Sir Chris Whitty opening the event. Prof Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the University College London Institute of Health Equity and Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor of Global Public Health, Edinburgh University will be among the key speakers at this year’s conference.

Full details of the programme, including other speakers, for the LGA/ADPH Annual Public Health Conference 2022 are available. This Zoom conference is free for media to sign up to and attend virtually.

Please follow the booking link at the end of the webpage and register as a non-member to attend this event.

2. The LGA’s COVID-19 Workforce Survey was sent to heads of human resources, or a nominated contact, in councils from England and Wales. This report relates to the survey sent out on 19 January 2022 and covers the week ending 14 January 2022. The overall response rate was 42 per cent and covered around a third of the total workforce