Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 4:50 pm, 18th June 2020

I, too, congratulate Dawn Butler on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. To those listed by Dr Allin-Khan I want to add my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, my hon. Friend Dr Spencer, my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes and my hon. Friend Marco Longhi, to name but a few more.

I think everybody would agree that this debate has been thoughtful and considered, and the topics and challenges that hon. Members have discussed have certainly been broad. The contributions have highlighted to me, as I have sat here for the past three hours, the sheer complexity of the issue. Health inequalities sit in my portfolio. Before covid, they presented enormous challenges; with covid, they have become even more challenging.

Members have passionately articulated the findings, and I concur that they are deeply concerning. There can be no doubt that covid-19 has upended all our lives. As the hon. Member for Tooting said, everybody knows somebody who has been touched. One of the challenges that Mr Dhesi and my hon. Friend Ms Ghani, whom I failed to mention, articulated is that everybody is somebody’s uncle, brother, wife or mother. Everybody has been touched by the challenge of not being able to say goodbye, to carry a coffin, to say those last goodbyes. That is the human face of this dreadful disease, which has changed the way we live and work.

Throughout it all, many frontline organisations have been no less than heroic for turning up on the frontline—not only the doctors who have turned up every day, but everybody in the team. The one thing I have noticed is how people have become teams. People have referenced the fact that those who help around the hospital, cleaning, portering and so on, are just as integral. It has become to feel like those are words of truth and not just expressions. If anything comes out of this appalling situation, it is that we will carry some of those brighter spots forward.

The hon. Member for Tooting said that the BAME community is not a homogenous group: I agree. That highlights one of the challenges. Early in this crisis, it became very clear that some groups of people were more vulnerable to coronavirus, which is why PHE was commissioned to undertake work on who was most at risk and why.

To hon. Members who raised the PHE report, I want to say that it was not censored or delayed. Professor Kevin Fenton has been engaging with significant numbers of individuals and stakeholders to collect views and ideas. Nothing has been removed from the report that was released on Tuesday. It is still in the process of being thought about, because it raised the challenge of additional areas that were not looked at, such as occupation, co-morbidities and so on. Duncan Selbie, the head of PHE, has clarified the matter in writing, and a written ministerial statement was laid to clarify the point to the House. The research was done at pace and I thank those involved for pulling it together so quickly.

Far from being a great leveller, covid-19 cruelly discriminates, but it discriminates more broadly than we have probably touched on today. People who are old, people who—as was mentioned by several Members—live in cities, people who work in public-facing jobs and people from BAME backgrounds are at a heightened risk.

This early research also revealed gaps in our knowledge. As we have clearly heard, the situation is complex. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke highlighted the importance of how we address the situation. Crucially, we do not know how different risk factors overlap and interact. I know that the calls for action now are heartfelt, but we need to understand different risk factors, including co-morbidities and occupation, so that we can ensure that there is a standardisation in the data and recommendations actually do what we need them to do. For example, we need to understand how much of the increased risk for those from BAME communities is driven by co-morbidities and occupation. This challenge was highlighted by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North.

We do not have all the answers, as the Welsh Health Minister acknowledged recently. People from BME backgrounds have made enormous contributions to the healthcare system and other key areas including transport, public services and the care sector, as my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers articulated. We must address the injustice of these ethnic disparities right across the board; so many hon. and right hon. Members have pointed out the breadth. That is precisely why the Prime Minister announced on the weekend the establishment of a commission to examine ethnic disparities in this country. It will have an independent chair, will report by the end of this year—within a very short timeframe—and will play an important role in driving the agenda forward. It will be overseen by the Minister for Equalities, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch.