As I come to the end of nearly five years at VHS, I cannot quite shake this bittersweet feeling. On the one hand I am really excited about starting a new opportunity and the challenges that lie ahead but at the same time I don’t want to leave a team that has become a second family to me and an organisation that has given me so much! This role has seen me transform from a very naïve but keen policy officer wanting to change the system and tackle inequalities into someone that knows what meaningful change looks like and how to bring it about through effective research, influencing and collaboration.
I also cannot thank my team for making my time at VHS so memorable. Claire’s support and mentorship over these last five years and her trust in me have helped me to grow and make the most of all the opportunities I have been offered! Lauren, I will miss your comradery, all the laughs we have had and our random chin-wags – long may they continue! Alison, I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise profusely for my terrible grammar – but also thank you for your advice and knowing smile these past years!
The whole experience at VHS has been a whirlwind starting with what was a thinly disguised trial by fire, in the form of the Mental health strategy consultation, due in my second week on the job, to all the other wonderful opportunities I’ve had since. Some key highlights for me include setting up the Health Policy Officers Network, a peer support group that meets to discuss key policy issues, share intelligence, horizon scan and also to just have each other’s backing when it comes to working in a challenging policy environment. A comrade’s comment always sticks, “the best bit is that there are no stupid questions”.
I also had the opportunity to design and conduct seminal research into the lived experience of loneliness and social isolation, The Zubairi Report. This refined not only my research skills but taught me how to effectively engage with people who have lived experience as experts and to value their knowledge and expertise. I am pleased that this research was able to influence the Scottish Government’s strategy, A Connected Scotland and is still being cited today as relevant context to the loneliness and isolation experienced during the pandemic. I cannot lie, I also thoroughly enjoyed signing copies of it at the Scottish Government Garden Lobby – albeit for my friends: thanks Lauren, Shruti and Celia for starting this trend!
One of the most useful lessons I have learnt at VHS is the importance of working collaboratively, how to do it properly, and for maximum impact! One of my most memorable moments is being couped up in the wee ‘Wilkie Room’ with snacks and my amazing policy colleagues at Alcohol Focus Scotland, Obesity Action Scotland, Nourish Scotland and Samaritans. In between chats about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, rising house prices and what to eat next we successfully co-ordinated a briefing that led to the inclusion of Health Impact Assessments for planning decisions in the Planning (Scotland) Act 2019.
I know I can talk for Scotland and while it may be hard for you all to believe – I genuinely loathe public speaking! If it was not for Claire throwing me in at the deep end and telling me to “just speak my mind” (dangerous – so very dangerous!) I would have missed out on all the exciting presentation opportunities I have had. The two that stick to my mind are when I presented at the Faculty of Public Health Conference for the very first time, I was nervous and my knees were shaking, so I decided to pull up a chair and sit down to deliver the presentation, “och depending on the seat I am the same height standing up as I am sitting down, might as well be comfortable” the laughter broke the ice and helped me relax – a little! The most memorable definitely has to be at World Health Organisation High-level Conference on Health Equity. At the conference I spoke about the need to step away from othering people who live with inequalities, from speaking about them as if they are just a statistic towards recognising the resilience, power and resource that already exist within disadvantaged communities, support to develop these and further empowering people to effect the change that they need and want. Without planning to, this ended up being the closing messages of the conference.
I feel proud to be able to end my time at VHS on a high note with the successful implementation of the recommendations from our briefing, Vaccine Inclusion: reducing inequalities one vaccine at a time, by the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Inclusive Vaccine Programme Steering Group and to have influenced the vaccine delivery model at an NHS Board level. I hope that the momentum created by the research and the briefing continues and that the Vaccine Programme is used as an opportunity to develop a whole-system, preventative approach to public health and to health inequalities.
My plan is to take all this learning, experience and memories and develop further in my new role within the civil service – but first I think I must watch Shin Godzilla – I think watching a movie about tackling bureaucratic red tape in the face of a crisis is good training for my new role!
Kiren Zubairi, Policy Engagement Officer, Voluntary Health Scotland