Matthew Ashton - Director of Public Health / Head of Health & Wellbeing

January's "2 Minutes With...", PHPN's regular feature for the North-West Population Health & Prevention Network caught up with Matthew Ashton, Director of Public Health / Head of Health & Wellbeing for Sefton Council.

Matt Ashton

Tell us about your role...

The Director of Public Health role within the local authority is responsible for all aspects of Public Health within the Local Authority, including Strategy and Intelligence, Health Improvement, Public Health Commissioning, Public Health Quality, and Health Protection, as well as wider responsibilities incorporating Early Intervention & Prevention, Health in All Policies, and Welfare Reform.

How did you get into your area of work?

I come from a family of public health people, but didn’t actively choose to follow in their footsteps. I studied Economics at University, before completing a Masters in Business, and as a result my maths has always been pretty good. When I left university I worked both for a bank, and for the Inland Revenue, before moving into the public sector in a role looking at the surveillance of communicable diseases and how they spread in our communities.

Tell us about your public health career journey...

I started off looking at patterns of disease, and how they spread, before moving into how we developed strategies to respond to the spread of diseases. At first my role was around communicable diseases such as meningococcal and tuberculosis, before moving onto sexually transmitted infections and HIV. This led to me undertaking a Masters in Health Informatics, and a Masters in Public Health, which then led first to a joint role between the Health Protection Agency and Liverpool John Moores University working with the sexual health team, before moving to Knowsley Primary Care Trust (PCT) in 2005 as a public health specialist, covering strategy and intelligence. Eventually I qualified as a consultant in public health, and become firstly Deputy Director of Public Health and then Director of Public Health for Knowsley, before moving to Sefton in 2018 as Director of Public Health and Head of Health & Wellbeing

Tell us a bit more...

My work area is incredibly broad. We have a small public health team that works to improve health & wellbeing in Sefton, and it does this in many ways. For example, we commission public health services such as community sexual health services, drug and alcohol treatment services, stop smoking services and wider integrated wellness services, and also our health visitor and school nurse services. We work closely with the health sector to help and support them to make a difference from a health services perspective. We also work with partners and elected members across the council, the rest of the public sector, and the voluntary, community and faith sector, to help them embed prevention and wellbeing into the heart of everything they do, so that we can all have better physical and mental health.

What have been your career highlights / greatest career achievements?

Working on the outbreak of legionnaires disease in Barrow-in-Furness, one of the worst outbreaks this country has seen, which really opened my eyes to the difference public health in practice can make.

Getting my Masters in Public Health and qualifying as a consultant in public health, which was very hard work, but gave me an amazing sense of achievement.

Moving the public health function from the NHS into the local authority in 2013 as a result of changes to national legislation, an incredibly difficult shift both operationally and culturally, but one I think we managed very well, establishing our own reputation and purpose within a council setting.

The transformation of public health services in Sefton, and the public health annual reports in Sefton over the last couple of years, which I think really help show that if we all work together we really can make a difference!

How do you keep yourself motivated?

The potential to make a difference for the communities we serve, and tackling some of the inequalities and unfairness that exists for some of our least well-off communities, whilst at the same time working to help everybody be healthier and happier. We don’t have all the answers, but by working with brilliant people both inside and outside of the public sector I absolutely believe we can make a difference.  

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Most, talking to our cabinet members and our councillors and communities, people who really matter, about what affects their health and wellbeing, and how we can support them better.

On the flipside, what do you enjoy least about your job?

Least, meetings, lots of them!

Lastly, would you recommend your job to others? If so, why?

Yes, absolutely! I work on things I passionately believe in, that actually make a difference to real people, and I work with and around brilliant people to do this. Every day is a challenge, but it is a challenge with a purpose, which makes it feel so worthwhile.