Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central 1:25 pm, 18th June 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is absolutely vital that the Government ensure that risk assessments are carried out in workplaces so as to have fewer deaths.

As I say, this is literally killing us, and just like the killing of George Floyd, we can all see it. If anyone does not believe me—if anyone does not believe that structural racism exists—believe the body count.

Incremental changes are no good if structural barriers still exist. Breaking down systemic and structural barriers will build a society that is better for everyone. Every life matters—of course it does, but not all lives are treated equally. Interestingly, some of the things that would most benefit and save black and Asian lives are the same things that will save everybody: risk assessments, test and trace, and easy access to in-date PPE. What the country needs now is a Government who are going to deliver fast and decisive action. Everyone in this House should stand up and say, “No longer should discrimination, cultural exclusion, poverty and class be allowed to determine whether you live or whether you die.”

That is why this debate is so important. It is said that if a house is on fire in a street, of course all the houses in the street are important, but the focus needs to be on the house that is burning—and right now this situation needs fixing for the BAME community. Right now we have a group of people who are dying at four times the rate of anybody else. It is the same demographic as the people who died in Grenfell Tower just three years ago. It is the same group of people who were subjected to the hostile environment just eight years ago. It is the same people who have been told to stop being victims. There is a pattern here, and we need the Government to show some urgency to address the racial inequalities that exist in the UK.

At first the Government said, “We will not publish the PHE report because it is too sensitive in relation to Black Lives Matter.” On 4 June, the Minister stood up and said, “We’ve asked Professor Kevin Fenton, a black surgeon, to lead on this review”, but apparently he did not lead on it. The Minister then said that the review was not part of the report. Confused? I know I am.

The Minister also stated that PHE did not make recommendations because it was not able to do so, but we know she was aware of the second set of recommendations made by PHE. When she gets to her feet, will she apologise on behalf of the Government for misleading the House? Why did the Government try to bury the PHE report? I was not the only one who was trying to get to the bottom of it. Eastern Eye, Channel 4 and Sky have doggedly pursued the issue because something just did not feel right. That is why people have taken to the streets—they are tired of the dishonesty.

The Government have form on whitewashing reports. Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review has seen very little progress. The Lammy review has not had any recommendations implemented. The 2018 race disparity audit has not been acted upon. The Windrush lessons learned review was edited and delayed for a year. It was published, had sections deleted and it was still not acted upon. The Government need to stop trying to erase from their reports the injustices towards black and brown people and working-class people. It is a disgrace.

The Government announce reviews and consultations to get themselves out of trouble, and then think that everybody will just forget as we stumble into the next crisis. We see what they are doing and we are calling them out on it, because they produced a document a few years ago that talked about “explain or change”. The Government said:

“When significant disparities between ethnic groups cannot be explained by wider factors, we will commit ourselves to working with partners to change them.”

I ask the Minister: what is stopping the Government from acting? The murder of George Floyd and the death toll of covid have forced us to have these overdue, open and, hopefully, honest conversations about race, so that we can ensure a fairer and more equal society.

As a member of the Science and Technology Committee, I have listened to many scientists talk about covid-19, and it is not genetics that have resulted in a higher death rate. It is not internal, and that means it is external. To back up the findings of the PHE report—the one that the Government tried to hide—it is noted that covid-19 potentially has had a less severe impact in the Caribbean, Africa and the Indian subcontinent. That raises questions as to why BAME communities in England are so severely affected. It is suggested that issues such as structural racism and discrimination and a failure to adequately protect key workers may have contributed disproportionately.

I am pleased that I have a covid testing centre in my constituency in Harlesden, which has been so hard-hit. If anyone is interested, they should register with Brent Council. As we build a better life after covid, we must do better. The UN found that the

“structural socio-economic exclusion of racial and ethnic minority communities in the United Kingdom is striking.”

The Minister and the Government should be embarrassed.

Some people have always had worse health outcomes—that is not new. Poor people have always had worse health outcomes, but the virus has magnified the scale of the inequality. Colour of skin, economic background and social and structural racial barriers and infrastructure are all factors as to whether someone has a good chance of surviving this pandemic.

The killing of George Floyd in the middle of a pandemic is a pivotal moment for the world. “I can’t breathe” is as true for covid-19 as it is for racism. History will judge each and every one of us in time on that moment when the world stood still for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. History will judge us on our actions and history will judge the Minister on her response. Minister, before you get to your feet to respond, ask yourself what will be written by your name.