Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Tan Dhesi Tan Dhesi Shadow Minister (Transport) 1:59 pm, 18th June 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Dawn Butler for securing this important debate. Without doubt, the nation needs a full independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid crisis, but one area in particular that demands scrutiny is the Government’s handling of the effects of covid-19 on the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Why have Ministers ignored the evidence, dragged their feet and almost certainly contributed to a situation where people from BAME communities have been disproportionately ravaged by this terrible disease?

For me, this is personal. I have lost loved ones to covid, such as Jagir Kaur, my lovely grandmother, our family matriarch, from whom I learnt so much, but whose coffin I was not even able to carry on my shoulder. Satnam Singh Dhesi, my fun-loving, Slough taxi-driver uncle was taken away from us way too early, and then I had to endure the indignity of watching his funeral online via Zoom. Hemraj Jaymal, my brother-in-law’s father, somehow contracted covid in a Slough care home, and, inexcusably, none of us was there to hold his hand when he breathed his last. May they all rest in peace and may we be forgiven for not being there. Families cannot attend bedsides and because the usual rituals and rights of funerals are disrupted, it makes loss even harder and grief even harsher, and there are tens of thousands of people suffering bereavement.

Back in April, we saw BAME people being disproportionately affected by covid-19 as data came in from emergency admissions to hospital from more than three months ago. On 22 May, King’s College London research showed that patients from BAME groups admitted to hospital with covid-19 are, on average, a decade younger than white patients. In May, the Office for National Statistics reported that black people were more than four times more likely to die from covid-19 than their white counterparts; that Bangladeshi and Pakistani people were more than one and a half times more likely to die from covid-19; and that the situation was similar for people with an Indian heritage. That was published more than a month ago.

Of course, Ministers have had a wealth of evidence from BAME organisations presented to Public Health England, which Ministers initially tried to delay, then cover-up and have released under pressure only this week. The evidence tells us what we already knew: ethnic inequalities in health and wellbeing in the UK existed before COVID-19, and the pandemic has made these disparities more apparent and undoubtedly exacerbated them. Why is this? One major reason is racism, and this racism, unfortunately, is also within our lovely NHS.

Figures released last week by the NHS Confederation show that the number of ethnic minority chairs and non-executive directors of NHS trusts in England has almost halved from 15% in 2010 to a mere 8% in 2018. Quoted in the Eastern Eye newspaper, Dr Ramesh Mehta, the president of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, said that this was down to “rampant discrimination” and a “club culture” within NHS professions.

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. While I am proud to be a part of the most diverse party and the most diverse Parliament ever, the lack of leadership positions in most key industries is shocking, including the all-important finance sector, where the majority of FTSE companies still have all-white boards. Rather than just tweeting about Black Lives Matter, those companies need to take a long hard look at themselves to judge whether they are indeed a part of the change that they proclaim to be.

Diversity is crucial because it brings in people with fresh perspectives and different priorities, thereby enhancing and improving the overall performance for all of us, so perhaps the Minister can comment on how she intends to tackle the racial discrimination within the NHS. It took until 16 June for Public Health England to publish its seven-point plan, but surely this should have been done from the very start. We do not just want to carry on collating data.

Of course I pay tribute to the frontline NHS staff across my Slough constituency, including at Wexham Park Hospital, who undoubtedly face incredible challenges and risks, but the British Medical Association reports that 90% of doctors and 60% of NHS staff who have died are from BAME backgrounds. Those absolutely staggering statistics should make us realise that something is very wrong.

We are lacking time, so in conclusion I want to ask the Minister to reflect on the plans to commemorate all those who have lost their lives, with a focal point of remembrance, and assure us that we will learn the lessons. More than anything, I hope she can allay my concerns. Black lives matter, and we demand deeds, not words.