Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:26 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 4:26 pm, 18th June 2020

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Dawn Butler on securing this very important debate this afternoon.

Coronavirus has laid bare many inequalities in the UK that have been growing and deepening during 10 years of austerity. Racial inequality is central among them. That was clear from the earliest announcements of coronavirus deaths among NHS staff, all of whom were BAME. It was clear from the deaths of comparatively younger people, such as the rapper Ty Chijioke, aged 47, who touched so many lives in Brixton in my constituency and across the music world, that coronavirus was having disproportionate impacts. It is also the case that there are existing long-standing racial inequalities in physical and mental health and high numbers of BAME staff working in frontline occupations in the NHS, social care and transport in particular, where exposure to coronavirus is increased.

That this pandemic would have disproportionate impacts on BAME communities could therefore have been anticipated, yet the Government undertook no equalities-based risk assessments at all to enable increased risk to be mitigated, and it took three months for a Public Health England report to be published. It simply confirmed what so many people already knew, but offered no recommendations or actions to address it.

When tragic deaths have been reported, including that of Belly Mujinga, who died after she was spat at while working at Victoria station, the response has been completely tone-deaf. British Transport police initially chose to close the investigation into Belly Mujinga’s death after the suspect tested negative for coronavirus, ignoring the fact that infected or not, spitting is assault, ignoring evidence that Belly had told her employer about underlying health conditions and had asked for mitigation measures, and ignoring evidence that she had not been provided with adequate PPE.

There was an opportunity to highlight increased risks, to show empathy and understanding of the fear and anxiety that so many BAME workers are suffering, to remind employers of their duty of care and to specify steps that should have been taken, but that was entirely missed. In responding to the Public Health England report, the Government have shown absolutely no urgency. There have been many, many reports, commissions and studies into the health inequalities suffered by BAME communities, and many, many reports on racial inequalities more widely, from Lord Macpherson to Wendy Williams to the Lammy review. We do not need more analysis and prevarication, nor do we need another report that will sit on a shelf. Still less do we need a report written by someone who does not acknowledge the existence of institutional racism.

We need urgent action to protect BAME workers from exposure to coronavirus now. Where are the Government’s instructions to hospitals, social care providers or transport providers on the steps they need to take to keep their BAME frontline staff safe? Where is the guidance on risk assessments, PPE and working protocols for employers? Where are the sanctions for employers who fail to act?

The racial inequalities of coronavirus do not stop at health. As many schools have reopened in recent weeks, headteachers in my constituency tell me that their BAME students are disproportionately staying at home, often because their parents are very fearful of the increased risks they face from coronavirus and are anxious to avoid infection—yet there is no recognition of that increased risk in the resources provided to schools. That risks a health inequality resulting in educational inequality.

For far too long, racial inequality and racism in the UK has been ignored and, in some cases, perpetuated by the Government, including very directly by this Prime Minister. It is evident in education, where our children are still taught a partial, incomplete and dishonest version of British history which bypasses the contribution that people from all over the world have made to our country’s story. It is evident in an immigration system that was unable to recognise as British thousands of Windrush citizens who had built their lives here for decades. It is evident in the over-representation of black men in the criminal justice system and in the disproportionality of stop and search. It is evident in low pay, insecure work and poor housing. It is evident in the pitiful proportion of BAME people in senior leadership roles in so many settings.

The consequences of this Government’s complacency and negligence on racial inequality and racism have ultimately proved to be deadly. I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate, will announce details of the urgent, immediate actions that will be taken to stop preventable BAME coronavirus deaths. Black lives matter because each life is a loved one with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Put simply, race should never be a factor for increased risk of death. That this is the case at all should be a source of national shame.