Four Decades of Change, Challenges and Catering in the Health Service

Last year, Brian Robb, Honorary National Chair of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) and Area Soft Facilities Manager at NHS Lothian, celebrated 40 years in the health service. “It feels like yesterday,” says Brian. “I met my wife Susan in the NHS after my first six months and within two years we were married.”

After leaving school at 15, Brian started his career as a chef at the North British Hotel (which later became the Balmoral) as an apprentice and worked his way up to junior sous chef. When the hotel was sold, he joined the Eastern General Hospital in 1981, part of NHS Lothian. “I was gobsmacked by the NHS’s excellent terms and conditions with sick pay and two days off a week. It was a big change, but as part of a group of 12 chefs we were encouraged to put flair into the menu and we did evoke change.”

Throughout his career, Brian has witnessed many changes and is now a champion for supporting and meeting the needs of fellow HCA members. A raft of initiatives has been introduced by the HCA to help all 600 members navigate their way across a wide range of platforms such as education, training and legislation, as well as coping with the pandemic. “The biggest changes I’ve seen are an improved infrastructure, more spending on equipment and huge changes in technology.”

Education and training for members is high on the HCA agenda for 2022, with a programme of webinars in the pipeline and fresh resources to be available for members to refer to. Brian says “We did some research to find out what subjects would interest members. The aim is to keep members updated with the latest news and best practise. We’ll be looking at trends, initiatives, developments in equipment and recruitment. The new guidance documents that we are launching are being put together by working groups comprising different branch members. This is totally new for us, bringing branches together and it will improve networking.”

The culmination of the HCA’s training work will be the HCA Leadership and Development Forum, which is held on March 30 and 31 in Liverpool. “We’re very excited about this as the Forum has been cancelled a few times because of Covid,” he says. Sessions will include an update on the Hospital Food Review, led by Phil Shelley, chair of the NHS Food Review and the impact of food waste by Eleanor Morris, WRAP.

As in other hospitality sectors, the pandemic has been difficult for hospital caterers and Brian cites it as one of his biggest challenges of his career. “Social distancing rules are probably more severe in hospitals than hospitality – social distancing is 2m – it never moved to 1m. We look at operations daily to make them safe for staff while still producing meals for patients. Catering in production kitchens is difficult with masks and social distancing. It’s bad enough working in a hot, sweaty kitchen but staff have to wear a mask as well. So to counteract this we give staff regular breaks and make sure they are nourished and refreshed with liquids.”

Despite the pandemic, Brian’s proudest achievement has been to change the structure of the HCA to a limited company by guarantee, a project which was completed last November. “The way we were set up exposed us to financial risk, but now the organisation is well equipped for the future,” says Brian.

Looking ahead to the next 12 months, Brian is keen to address the issue of staffing and recruitment which is currently affecting the industry, stating “We need better engagement with colleges to provide courses for apprenticeships to attract youngsters into the industry. The NHS Chef competition has helped to raise the profile of hospital catering, but it isn’t seen as sexy, so this is something we need to address.”