Twelve months on from the exit of Lucy Wightman, North Northants is without a permanent director of public health
The authority is struggling to recruit someone to lead the public health department
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By Sarah Ward
When the county’s former director of public health (DPH) Lucy Wightman left the job last January to take on the same role in Essex, she received many plaudits from those who had worked alongside her.
The figurehead of the county’s Covid response she became a regular fixture on TV and radio during the pandemic, assuring the county’s residents about what her team was doing to contend with the Covid virus, which at times threatened to overwhelm local health services and often saw various localities top the national Covid hotspot.
When she departed, the county’s two unitary councils decided that rather than have one DPH for Northants, as had always been the case, they would instead employ one each, to take accountability for the two geographical areas.
But since then while the West unitary has appointed a permanent director, Sally Burns (who has been in post since May last year), the North has not.
NN Journal understands there have been two recruitment attempts and on the latest occasion in December one candidate was interviewed by the authority’s employment committee and offered the job. However the candidate was not able to provide references and so the offer was withdrawn.
Since Wightman’s departure 13 months ago, the council has been employing the services of Professor John Ashton, 75, to fill the role.
Ashton is well known in the public health field. He has his own Wikipedia page that lists his professional achievements which include setting up one of the world’s first syringe exchange programmes in Liverpool and founding a leading public health observatory in the city. He has won prizes for his work and was the regional director of public health for the north west for 13 years.
He has also been the president of the Faculty of Public Health.
However his virtual attendance at meetings - NN Journal understands he works from the North West of England - has been of concern to some. In recent weeks public health reports have been presented to the council by an executive cabinet member rather than a public health officer.
Leader of the Labour opposition Cllr John McGhee says he has been asking questions of the council’s senior leadership for several months with regards to how the public health department is being run. A long serving councillor, McGhee is passionate about public health and for many years challenged the former county council on the dismal life expectancy rates for people living in the Kingswood and Hazel Leys ward in Corby which he represents.
The public health department has about 90 staff (and is carrying dozens of vacancies), and Cllr McGhee has concerns about professor Ashton’s long distance arrangement:
“It is not acceptable. A DPH needs to take time to work with their partners and make suggestions about how to improve public health.
“I don’t call into question his knowledge, but I have seen him once in a year and a bit.
“We are paying someone a lot of money not to be in meetings with staff.”
We asked the unitary council a number of questions about professor Ashton’s pay and terms and conditions however many were not answered.
Instead we received a statement from council leader Jason Smithers which said:
“The role of Director of Public Health is a statutory role of the council and is currently fulfilled at North Northamptonshire Council on an interim basis by Professor John Ashton. John has a wealth of knowledge and experience and makes a very active contribution to the development of the health and wellbeing agenda in North Northamptonshire.
“The recruitment market for Directors of Public Health is by its nature, very specialist and competitive. It is normal practice for councils to announce changes to statutory roles publicly and this would happen in the case of the Director of Public Health and any future changes.”
We requested an interview with professor Ashton to ask what he views as the main public health issues in the north of the county. However we did not receive a response.
Why the area needs a permanent director of public health
The role of the DPH is to determine the vision and objectives for public health in a local area. This includes health protection.
DPHs are required to write an annual report, which tells a local community about its health, addresses gaps in provision and outlines priorities. The current annual report was published late and is attributed to the former DPH Lucy Wightman. It is largely a look back at the county’s Covid response and has just five recommendations for the year ahead. All of which are unmeasurable and without targets. They are:
1. The exploration and delivery of health-related messaging with a sense of inclusivity.
2. The continuation of collaborative working alongside other public and voluntary services to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the population in North and West Northamptonshire.
3. The Health and Social Care system across North and West Northamptonshire should further utilise data and intelligence about the impact of COVID-19 and other health related matters to inform services or initiatives and meet the needs of local communities.
4. Priority should be placed on addressing the health inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic within and across the two unitary areas by ensuring access to services for all, particularly those who are rurally or socially isolated.
5. Investment in services which improve physical and mental health and wellbeing of the local populations which are key to supporting the recovery from the pandemic and the future health of the population.
Now is also a crucial time in the health reorganisation of the county. A new integrated care board was established last July (replacing the former Northamptonshire Clinical Commissioning Group) which has seen a shift towards more partnership working between public health, the NHS and social care. Both unitary councils are also setting up a series of Local Area Partnerships which will aim to look at health on a more local level and set up strategies and align services to those community needs.
The public health team is responsible for gathering and checking this data so informed decisions can be made about the services that would benefit the local community. It is also involved in producing a health inequalities report.
Vacancies at North Northamptonshire Council
The lack of a permanent DPH is just one of the vacancies at the authority. Since its very early days in the Spring of 2021 it has been carrying hundreds of empty posts across all departments. According to the latest data to December there are currently 278 vacancies and 2,580 staff. The authority is paying tens of millions each year to recruitment agencies for staff and charging residents for positions that it is not filling.
Thanks for reading. Our next story will be published on Thursday.