Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:41 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge 2:41 pm, 18th June 2020

I thank Dawn Butler for securing this debate and the Members who have made such powerful and thoughtful speeches throughout the debate. I wish to focus on the PHE report and, as it is a theme that has emerged from this debate, a call for action.

The recent PHE report on the disparities in risk and outcomes of covid found that being from a black and minority ethnic background is associated with a significantly increased risk of death from covid. That is a deeply concerning and worrying finding. The researchers were able to control for the effects of age, sex, socioeconomic deprivation and, to a limited extent, occupation, as all those things are increasingly understood as risk factors for death from covid. However, it remains unclear whether the effect of ethnicity is in part mitigated by obesity or other health conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which are known to be more prevalent in the BME community. That is a health inequality in and of itself, but the study was unable to control for it. It was also unable to provide a detailed and granular understanding of the effect of occupation, especially for those working in public-facing or care roles. The report further concludes that research needs to be done in this area. It is absolutely right that the Government are urgently looking into this. By getting detailed scientific data, we can understand better the complicated relationships between these factors and not only shape our respond to covid, but continue to inform future health policy to address the needs of those who are currently being left behind. We have to do that very quickly.

The PHE stakeholder report makes several recommendations for change, which Members have mentioned. The one I wish to highlight in this debate is the need to accelerate efforts to target culturally competent health promotion and disease prevention programmes, as the importance of that cannot be overstated. Broad-brush approaches to interventions may work for the majority, but they can miss out some of the people most in need, and we need to ensure that our public health programme has the right message, at the right time, delivered in the right way, for the individual to exert change.

Many people still face health inequalities in the UK. I have already mentioned socioeconomic deprivation, an important driver of those inequalities that I wish to discuss a little further. Socioeconomic deprivation is a factor in almost all acquired health conditions. I am sure that that is on our minds at this moment, given the possible long-term impacts of the lockdown. We must ensure that everyone has the same opportunities in life, which means tackling inequalities, socioeconomic deprivation and all the factors that drive it, with access to quality education being key.

The coronavirus pandemic is a pandemic of inequalities that hits those who are already worst off the hardest. This Government, and the one before it, have worked hard to tackle health inequalities in the black and minority ethnic communities. For example, one aim of the independent review of the Mental Health Act 1983 was to examine and change the increased likelihood of people from a black and minority ethnic background being detained under that Act. As a mental health doctor, I took part in that review and sat on one of the working groups. That work was to help shape a White Paper and reform our mental health laws for the future. It is now time for us to publish that White Paper and drive forward those much-needed reforms.

This pandemic is likely to have a grave impact on those struggling with mental illness in society, and while I do not know this, I worry that that will disproportionately impact the black and minority ethnic community. Now more than ever is the time for definitive action. We need a public health revolution to tackle the burning injustice of health inequalities in the black and minority ethnic community. We must ensure that the pandemic does not end up entrenching inequality, and the way to do that is to move public health from the margins to the centre of our national health strategy.