‘Urgent plan is needed to end BAME health inequalities’

Tan Dhesi (Photo: John Phillips/John Phillips).
Tan Dhesi (Photo: John Phillips/John Phillips).

By Tan Dhesi
Labour MP for Slough
Shadow minister for railways

THE nation needs a full, independent public in­quiry into the govern­ment’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which has taken the lives of so many people, including three of my own close family members.

We need to scrutinise ministers’ decisions on the provision of person­al protective equipment (PPE), the timing of lockdown and quaran­tine, and the influence of special advisers.

But one area in par­ticular that demands scrutiny is this govern­ment’s handling of the effects of Covid-19 on black, Asian, and mi­nority ethnic communi­ties, particularly those working in our NHS.

Over the past few months, ministers have dragged their feet on producing reports de­tailing the impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities, and have provided no real meas­ures to tackle structural and racial inequalities in the UK. We know that BAME communities in the UK have always had greater health risks, both mental and physi­cal, and this must be addressed. The govern­ment must act now and produce a detailed action plan on what remedial actions will be taken.

In Public Health Eng­land’s (PHE) most re­cent report on this is­sue, “historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work” are highlighted as key reasons for the disproportionate im­pact on BAME people.

Unfortunately, this includes racism within our much-loved NHS it­self. There have been cries about the lack of PPE and of discrimina­tion from BAME health staff. In the excellent Eastern Eye investiga­tion, Dr Ramesh Mehta, president of the British Association of Physi­cians of Indian Origin, is quoted as saying this was down to ‘rampant discrimination’ and a ‘club culture’ within the NHS professions.

Figures released by the NHS Confederation show the number of ethnic minority chairs and non-executive di­rectors of NHS trusts in England has almost halved – from 15 per cent in 2010 to eight per cent in 2018. How can BAME healthcare workers en­sure they are represent­ed at the highest level of the NHS when repre­sentation is decreasing?

This is even more shocking when you consider that the health and care workforce in England are significant­ly over-represented by people from BAME groups – 40 per cent of doctors, 20 per cent of nurses, and 17 per cent of social care workforce are BAME. Representa­tion matters, and the dismally low number of executive directors of NHS trusts is inexcusa­ble. If BAME doctors and nurses are good enough to die on the frontline, surely they are good enough to lead?

I pay tribute to front-line NHS staff across my Slough constituency, including at Wexham Park hospital. They face incredible challenges and risks and they must be protected.

It took until last Tuesday (16) for PHE to publish its seven-point plan. Like so much of the government’s re­sponse to this crisis, it is too late. Two of the seven points are about gather­ing more data and do­ing more research! Surely this should have been done from the very start?

It is shameful to note, as highlighted in East­ern Eye’s special report, during the delay in pub­lishing the PHE report, 17 doctors died because of the virus, and 16 of them were BAME. No wonder the British Medical Association has called it ‘an utter failure of leadership’. More than 100 BAME healthcare workers, nurses, GPs, transplant surgeons, porters, have died. The nation needs to remem­ber the friends, neigh­bours, grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who have departed. And we need to thank the NHS heroes who held their hands as they left on that jour­ney. In their memory, we must do better.

The most chilling part of the PHE report is the warning, “if lessons are not learnt from this initial phase of the epi­demic, future waves of the disease could again have severe and dispro­portionate impacts”.

Chilling, because it shows more BAME fam­ilies like mine will suffer bereavement; chilling because it suggests a second wave is on the way; and chilling be­cause I see no evidence that ministers have learnt any lessons.