Wigan's public health chief retires and leaves behind proud legacy

Wigan’s high profile director of public health is stepping down after more than a decade of trying to put us in better shape.

Prof Kate Ardern has been the DPH across the borough for 14 years, while also holding the major regional position.

She led the response to Covid-19 in Wigan, while also becoming a figurehead as a public health spokesperson and expert in the region, and being a vocal advocate of tackling health inequalities which have long persisted in the city-region.

On her time in the borough, Prof Ardern said: “My retirement was planned as I turned 60 back in January.

Prof Kate Ardern

"It has been timed for now because I wanted to make sure the borough was in a good position and we were through the worst of the Omicron wave.

"I came here in May 2008 and it was an interesting challenge to come into Wigan as there were some very significant health issues going on.

"I was also tasked with raising the profile of prevention and public health and embed it across the system.

"It has been an incredible journey and we have seen some remarkable changes in that time.

Kate Ardern lead both the borough and Greater Manchester in the fight against Covid

"There are still some hurdles to overcome post-pandemic but in general we have seen some developments.

"One of the things I’m proud of is there is an improvement in healthy life expectancy particularly for women who are now within the England average.

"Men also achieved it but they have slipped back slightly coming out of the pandemic. We know their position is recoverable as they continue to make considerable progress.

"We’ve also adopted an approach from Finland in terms of cardiovascular disease prevention so we’re certain it can be achievable.”

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Prof Ardern is one of the local authority’s longest-serving members.

Among her proudest achievements has been work within Wigan Council’s The Deal and her approach to public health by joining forces with the NHS and other services.

Health charity the King's Fund ran a report on the Wigan Deal and said it was “notable for the scale and consistency” in how it has been applied, bringing in deals for communities, adult social care, business, children and young people, and health and wellness.

Prof Kate Ardern, right with chief scientific adviser for the Department of Health and Social Care Prof Chris Whitty, who later became a figurehead for the Covid-19 pandemic

Prof Ardern said: “Public engagement was key to conquering some of these issues.

"We instituted a health champions movement throughout the borough and we have around 23,000 people engaged in some form of activity.

"This ranges from our young health champions through to dementia and autism friends. It is investment in people’s ideas which promotes citizen engagement.

"There is also associations with our work on Be Well in leisure services and utilising our green space.

"All our work crosses over into housing policy and in education in what we call a whole societal whole system approach which has shown we have made an incredible difference.

"It has been an exciting journey as I have seen a change in people’s health perceptions and I’ve also seen confidence grow among citizens.

“The original concept of a DPH reporting on the statistics once a year needed to change.

“We needed to look what was going on and look at the kind of activities people were doing so I adopted a film-making approach and the four movies were very-well received.”

Prof Ardern was also the lead in both the borough’s and Greater Manchester’s fight against Covid and was “very proud of our response”: “It’s remarkable really considering more of our population were at risk given we have more older people.

"We also had a very high take up of the vaccine among that generation and I think the work we did right across the system in terms of PPE, infection protection control and care home squads.

"We also had our own contact tracing hub which outperformed the national test and trace system.”

While Prof Ardern will be taking some time off, she is set to embark on new adventures such as lecturing at Salford University alongside other related jobs.

She added: “I’m having a few months to rest but I’ll be continuing to an honorary professor at the university and I’ll be teaching those on the North West public health apprenticeship scheme on the masters course and on the BSE course in the future.

"Alongside the lecturing I’ll be doing some research with colleagues which is under way around our communities around alcohol in Hag Fold which has attracted national and international interest.

"It was always the aim to move into a portfolio career but from the autumn I’ll be starting work as a service improvement associate for the Local Government Association.

"I’ll be using my expertise in peer review and supporting other parts of the country with their health improvement.

"I will also be maintaining my connections with the King’s Fund and doing some stuff on their leadership development programme

“I’m also going to continue my links with the All Parliamentary Group and picking up some work with the NHS Confederation in Northern Ireland and the British Academy as well.”

On her departing message, Prof Ardern said: “It has been a huge honour to be the DPH for Wigan and to be a part of the borough’s story.

"I have fond childhood memories of visiting close family friends in Shevington so I’ve always had this emotional connection.

"My message to people going forward is keep going and keep the faith in health improvement activities.

"You have made a difference right across the borough, yes there is recovery to do post-pandemic but you can achieve it.”

It is not yet know who Prof Ardern’s successor will be.