Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:39 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Rosena Allin-Khan Rosena Allin-Khan Shadow Minister (Mental Health) 4:39 pm, 18th June 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for her articulate and eloquent intervention. I agree that our BAME communities must never be an afterthought and deserve to have everything in place to keep them safe, just as we prioritised other members of our community.

I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder on the frontline of our NHS, where I proudly work alongside doctors, nurses, cleaners, porters and carers from all backgrounds.

Those on the frontline have made huge sacrifices during this pandemic, but far too many have made the ultimate sacrifice and paid for their service with their lives. The health and care workforce in England are significantly over-represented by people from BAME groups. These are jobs that cannot be done from home, and they have been front and centre of the response to covid-19. Can the Minister please outline whether risk assessments will be developed for BAME key workers exposed to a large section of the general public?

It is not just those on the frontline of our NHS paying the price; it is our bus drivers, our posties, our station attendants, our shop workers, our refuse collectors—the very people who have kept our supermarket shelves stocked and cleaned our streets so that we can safely socially distance. They must not be forgotten. We need action from the Government, not simply words. The issue of flagrant inequality cannot be kicked into the long grass by the Government any longer. It would dishonour the memory of those who have sadly lost their lives. Unfortunately, the reality for many of these frontline workers is that they were doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do.

Let us be perfectly clear: there was no option to work from home for these staff and they could not afford not to go to work; they could not risk losing their jobs, for how would they feed their families? So many BAME people are in insecure work and have to carry on with unsafe practices for fear of the repercussions, afraid to speak out—and it has cost them their lives. The bullying of BAME people in the workforce is rife and concerns were so often dismissed that staff felt that they could not raise the issue of inadequate provision of PPE. The BMA has even stated that BAME doctors are twice as likely not to raise concerns for fear of recrimination. Does the Minister agree that it is simply unacceptable that cleaners were being sent to clean the rooms of people who had died of covid-19 without adequate PPE?

When we discuss the disproportionately high number of BAME deaths, it is vital that the discourse does not fall into pseudoscience and biological difference. I am a doctor with a public health master’s degree. To be clear: it is not simply about people from a BAME background having different receptors in their lungs. People from BAME backgrounds are not a homogenous group of people. We are talking about people with vastly different heritage and racial backgrounds. Other countries have got this virus in check. The risk faced by BAME communities here in the UK is down to structural racism and the precarious work that people are placed in as a result.

The UK has been a warm and welcoming country for so many, but for others—for too many—it has not. We cannot ignore the vast number of deaths in our communities and sweep the memories of our loved ones under the rug. In the early days of the crisis, when communication was crucial, why did the Government not reach out to BAME communities? Can the Minister explain that? Why were vital documents not translated so that public health advice could be easily disseminated into some of our most vulnerable communities? How will that change going forward?

The Government’s overlooking of our BAME communities has categorically and catastrophically cost lives. The hurt and pain brought to the fore during the crisis cannot be forgotten. I will never forget standing at the bedside of patients, holding a phone to their ear, as they said their last goodbyes to their loved ones. Those tears, that sound—it never leaves you. It must not be forgotten. We are proudly here today standing shoulder to shoulder with our friends, our families, our communities who have been deeply affected by this pandemic, and it is a scandal that the Government blocked a review that included recommendations that could have helped to save BAME lives during this crisis. What message does that send about how the Government value them?

If, as a country, we truly want to learn from this crisis and treat everyone as equal, we must tackle racism wherever we come across it, and it is everyone’s responsibility, regardless of skin colour, ethnicity or socio-economic status—it is everyone’s problem. Our BAME communities have been failed and need to be able to trust that we here in this Chamber, in Parliament, truly represent them. It is our duty to rebuild the trust that has been lost. The pandemic has so brutally stripped humanity of its ability to breathe. It is time for the Government to inject humanity and true equality into all their policies. The time to act is now.