Trevor Phillips (File photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Exclusive: Investigate ingrained NHS racism, says Trevor Phillips

By Barnie Choudhury and
Shailesh Solanki

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.”