Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Tulip Siddiq Tulip Siddiq Shadow Minister (Education) 5:18 pm, 18th November 2020

In the light of the welcome news that a potential vaccine is forthcoming, I want to talk about the consequences for BME communities. As my hon. Friend Alex Norris said, covid-19 has hit BME communities hard. A recent study in The Lancet pointed out that black people are twice as likely to be impacted by covid-19 as white people, and someone of an Asian background is one and a half times as likely to be impacted by covid-19 as a white person.

It really worries me that, of the 270,000 people who have signed up to the NHS vaccine registry, only 1,200 are from black, Caribbean or African heritage. That is only 0.5% of the entire registry. For people of an Asian background, it is slightly better, but even then the figure is only 4% of the entire registry. What worries me is that this is a community that has been hit so disproportionately —as I have seen at first hand—and if we do not get more people from this community signing up for the trials, the research findings will not be representative.

I want to pose a few questions to the Minister. I do not expect her to answer me straightaway, but I hope that she will consider my questions because I am really concerned about the BME communities and I hope that the people in government will think about these issues. What have the Government actually done to take concrete steps in trying to persuade people from BME communities to take part in the vaccine trial and to get involved in research that is linked to the virus? Have the Government undertaken an assessment to find out why more people from BME communities have not been coming forward? Have they looked at the root causes of people not trusting the system? Have they tried to rectify these problems and bring people forward?

Are the Government undertaking initiatives that we simply do not know about, but should? I know that local MPs are undertaking activities with BME communities in their own constituencies, but I want to know whether the Minister thinks that the Government, have done enough with the national effort. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Equalities put out a statement saying that more people should come forward, but warm words will not cut it at this point—when it is about life and death. And, with all due respect, a Minister writing in The House magazine is not the medium through which we access hard-to-reach communities. We have to do better than that.

The low sign-up rates for the vaccine are not only a problem when it comes to representative research; they do not bode well for when the vaccine is actually rolled out across communities. In its independent report published in September this year, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation does not include ethnicity as one of the prioritisation factors for the roll-out of the vaccination programme. However, it does state:

“Any programme will need to ensure every effort is made to get good coverage in black, Asian and minority ethnic…groups”.

We need a better explanation of why ethnicity is not provisionally included as a priority factor for vaccination, given how vulnerable the BME communities are. I understand that it is complex, and of course we have to be careful not to allow anyone to believe that they are being targeted or forced to trial something that is unsafe—this subject has been a source of misinformation and mistrust so far—but we also need a clear plan from the Government to get good coverage with the vaccination.

The Social Science in Humanitarian Action Platform has said:

“Vaccine trials must engage with communities or risk failure… this means understanding contextual determinants of (mis)information …and identifying both formal authority structures and informal sources of information/influence”.

The Government would do well to heed this advice, and I would like them to consider funding and working with small charities and communities that the BME community trust and engage with. For example, have the Government thought about engaging in town hall meetings—even if they are virtual—with BME scientists, doctors and nurses in order to hold question and answer sessions on the concerns of BME communities, and to provide more information? Have they thought about using places of worship as a way of disseminating information to hard-to-reach communities?

I am not being facetious, but I honestly do not think that politicians are the best people to do this outreach. A survey last year showed that we are the least trusted profession in Britain; we actually ranked lower than estate agents! I am a politician as well, and I am saying to everyone in this Chamber that we need to think about how we can get information to the right people through the right medium. This is not about scoring political points. It is a matter of life and death. I am worried that, if the Government do not take this seriously, we are going to run out of time and we will not do what is right by the BME communities in this country.