By Barnie Choudhury and
ASIAN and black health workers are being put in harm’s way during the coronavirus pandemic because of “structural racism”, one of the country’s leading equalities campaigners has claimed.
Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said some workers were being “pushed” into high-risk roles because protocols were not rigorous enough.
Phillips, one of the key experts assisting in Public Health England’s (PHE) review into the disproportionate number of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities (BAME) contracting and dying from Covid-19, said the issue had been raised with him by ethnic minority health workers.
“They are working night shifts, for example, they are more likely to be pushed into places where maybe the risk is greater because the protocols are not as strong or the disciplines not as rigorous,” he said.
“You cannot argue the health service doesn’t have some specific, long-ingrained habits and behaviours which keep people of colour in certain functions and at certain levels. I think that’s without question now. Does it affect this issue of Covid-19 status or not? I can’t be absolutely sure. It’s something you have to investigate.”
Last week, a poll for ITV News showed that 84 per cent of BAME healthcare staff said they were being deployed in more frontline roles with potential exposure to Covid-19. The chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), Dr Chaand Nagpaul, told the broadcaster that 94 per cent of doctors who have died after contracting the virus are from a BAME background.
“I just want it fixed. If I were Matt Hancock, or Simon Stevens who runs the NHS, I wouldn’t just say ‘look into it’. I would reverse the burden of proof and say ‘I want some demonstration that this is not happening in your setting’,” said Phillips.
Last week, the chair of the NHS Confederation, Lord Adebowale, told Eastern Eye that racism “clearly played a role” in the rising deaths within ethnic groups.
Speaking exclusively to Eastern Eye in his first interview since joining the PHE review, Phillips said the initial lack of government messaging to minority communities was an example of structural racism.
“It isn’t to do with people being terribly bigoted about people of (a) different race. That’s not what structural racism is about. It is about habits and inertia and neglect. It wasn’t they neglected people of colour, it’s just that they didn’t imagine that people of colour would experience this differently.”
Phillips said he became aware of the high number of BAME Covid-19 infections after he saw figures from America which showed disproportionately more black men and women were dying from the pandemic.
When he mapped the spread of the infection against the concentration of different ethnic groups in Britain, he said the evidence stopped him in his tracks, but no one was talking about it. Phillips spoke to the government at the end of March and he believed they listened to him because of his former high-profile role. He praised the country’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, for “not wasting a day” directing PHE to find out what was going on.
Phillips and his business partner Prof Richard Webber are providing support to the review using sophisticated software they have developed to analyse data on the impact of the virus on BAME communities. They will examine the impact of a number of factors which include demography, ethnicity, age profile, underlying health conditions and occupation. This data will then be interpreted by medical experts at PHE.
The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysis suggests that black men and women in England and Wales are more than four times as likely to die after contracting the disease than white people, while Bangladeshi and Pakistani men were almost twice as likely (1.8). The expert group will carry out a review of factors which could affect people contracting the virus, and will include digging into the data around geographical spread, deprivation and health inequalities and social conditions.
Although Phillips is not opposed to the idea of a public inquiry, now was not that time, he said. “Putting it absolutely brutally, people are dying right now. I just can’t think of why I could spend 10 minutes talking about something that will not save a single life now, when getting down to my analysis could help the health service focus on the people who are at risk. So, to me, it’s a matter of priorities.”
In an interview with Eastern Eye two weeks ago, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, promised initial findings by the end of the month.
“The big priority for me is who’s at risk?’ said Phillips. “Can they be better protected? Who needs to decide? Let’s protect them now.”
His appointment to the PHE review has been criticised in several quarters. Among his critics are Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former Conservative party chair; and Lord Woolley, director of Operation Black Vote.
PHE also received an open letter signed by 100 black British women urging it to remove Phillips and accusing it of “playing racial politics with a pandemic”.
“At the moment, nobody’s worrying about the politics of this,” said Phillips. “What we’re interested in is what the facts tell us. If they tell us the story about somebody at risk, what do we need to do to take them out of that risk?”
When pressed about the criticism, he struck a more conciliatory tone. “I fully understand that I have sometimes failed to get across what I really mean when it comes to Britain’s Muslim communities. I get it.
“I know there are some people who are being critical of things I’ve said for their own political reasons.
“But I also know that there are people who are uncomfortable with things I’ve said because they honestly share my desire to see all faiths and all cultures in the UK properly understood and respected, and they worry that the arguments around me get in the way of that. That’s the last thing I want.
“That doesn’t mean that we all have to agree – part of being a real democracy is the freedom for us to champion the values we believe in without others disrespecting those values or calling us names,” Phillips continued.
“I want that right to open and robust debate for my Muslim friends and colleagues as much as for anyone else, and if anything I have said can be read otherwise, I know I need to do a better job in my writing and speaking.
“But in the end, part of the answer to the Rodney King question – ‘why can’t we all just get along’ – is that we need to be open and honest with each other, and share our different perspectives – not with anger, but with generosity, respect and understanding.”