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.