Covid-19: Disparate Impact - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 27th October 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 6:00 pm, 27th October 2020

My Lords, at last I can ask you to note my entry in the register of interests: I am proud to announce that I have been asked to join several noble Lords by becoming a vice-president of the LGA, and I have gladly accepted.

This side of the House welcomes the work being done on equality issues as noted in the quarterly report, but we are deep into the second wave of this virus, and what is before us in this Statement falls far short of what is needed. We are in great want as a country of a concrete, forward-looking strategy and action plan to improve outcomes for those most at risk in this pandemic. The first Covid disparities report has several recommendations that the Prime Minister has apparently accepted in full, but few of these are quantifiable or, more importantly, accompanied by timetables for delivery. Recommendation 3 in the report is for a rapid, light-touch review of actions taken by local authorities to see what works.

I pay tribute to my colleagues in local government, who have had an unrelenting work schedule since the onset of the pandemic. I simply do not know how they have kept up after a decade of chronic underinvestment in public services. In Wales, local councils have worked with the Welsh Government in taking ownership of the test and trace system with much success, proving far more successful than the contracting-out model given to private companies in England. The Government should have listened to the expertise in local government, although I believe that some moves are being made by English councils, taking matters into their own hands and setting up their own systems.

I therefore ask the Minister for more information on this review of local authorities. When will it be started and completed? Who will run it, and how will the Government share its best-practice findings? Furthermore, and most importantly, how much additional financial support have the Government allocated to the already overstretched and underfunded local authorities where the most at-risk communities have been identified?

We welcome, in recommendation 9 of the report, the intention to make ethnicity reporting mandatory in the death certification process. How will that data be used and shared to effectively impact on policy? We know that there are several different policy areas that interlink to increase Covid risks. What we are clearly missing is a government strategy to tackle deep structural inequalities, including in housing and in employment opportunities—which have such an impact here. Where is the action on these areas? Poverty and inequality have been remorselessly highlighted across the UK by this disease. There is a higher prevalence and mortality in areas of high deprivation. In addition to people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups being at risk of Covid, disabled people accounted for nearly 60% of all deaths between March and July. They are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people and accounted for one-third of the 300,000 people who were not eligible for social security support. What are the Government doing to protect disabled people’s lives as we enter the second wave of this deadly pandemic?

I further note an issue that surrounds the lack of data around health outcomes for LGBT people, not least in respect of the intersectionality with BAME people in respect of the pandemic. This deficit was identified in the LGBT action plan. Will the Minister therefore ask her department to collect this important information by ensuring that future public health surveys record data on all protected characteristics?

I must commend the Minister for Health in Wales, Vaughan Gething, on the work he has been doing on these disparate issues. Through his early identification of these problems he set up a task force, putting in place measures to address the “adverse and disproportionate impact” on people from BAME communities.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Lawrence for chairing the report—originated by the leader of the Labour Party—into Covid-19. It is published today with the title An Avoidable Crisis. We proudly welcome this report and the concrete steps it takes to address the issues that have arisen for the BAME community during the pandemic. We urge the Government to implement the actions contained in the report.

The report provides a snapshot of the impact of Covid-19 to date and the structural inequalities faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic people. There are immediate recommendations to protect those most at risk as the pandemic progresses. The report also demonstrates the next steps to begin to tackle the underlying causes of inequality in our society. As noted in the report, this virus is having an unequal and devastating impact on ethnic minority communities. Sadly, people are dying at a disproportionate rate. They are also overexposed to the virus and are therefore more likely to suffer the economic consequences of the pandemic.

The Government have failed to take notice and have not implemented any counteraction that could help halt this devastation. Coronavirus has undoubtedly highlighted the inequalities throughout British society. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are more likely to work in front-line sectors and thus are overexposed to Covid-19. They are also more likely to have comorbidities that increase the risk of serious illness and more likely to face barriers to accessing healthcare.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people have also been subject to disgraceful racism as some have sought to blame different communities for the spread of the virus. Barriers include a lack of cultural and language-appropriate communication, not being taken seriously when presenting with symptoms, a lack of clinical training on the presentation of different illnesses across communities and the “no recourse to public funds” rule that prevents many migrants from accessing state assistance. Labour fully supports an immediate review of this rule and its impact on public health and health inequalities.

We neither want, nor expect, the report to sit on a shelf gathering dust. The recommendations are both immediate, with measures that can be taken by the Government within weeks, such as ensuring that employer risk assessments are published and, in the longer term, ending the hostile environment that has surrounded us this past decade. Keir Starmer said today that Covid lays bare the racial inequalities that have long existed in our society and announced that the next Labour Government will introduce a new race equality Act to tackle the structural inequalities that led to the disproportionate impact of this crisis. It will begin to transform what has become a bitter landscape for our BAME communities across the country.

I ask the Minister to request, with immediate effect, a suspension of the “no recourse to public funds” rule during the pandemic and to initiate the review that we are calling for into its impact on public health and health inequalities. We have been calling for this review since April and yet again a major issue has fallen on deaf ears, despite massive public engagement in a campaign led by Marcus Rashford, a wonderful example of a young man speaking out against the injustice of a nation not feeding its poorest children.

This implacable Government continue to turn their face against the wall in the hope that it will all go away, while repeating the same tired mantras of money already being allocated. Sadly, it is too little, too late. These problems—these inequalities—will not just go away. We know it, the Government know it and, more importantly, the people of the United Kingdom know it.

The whole response to this pandemic has fallen far short in so many areas and the disproportionate effect on the BAME community is carefully documented in the excellent report from the noble Baroness, Lady Lawrence, published today. I urge all noble Lords to read it and I urge the Government to adopt its immediate and longer-term recommendations without delay. To do nothing less would be simply incomprehensible to the decent vast majority of the British people who have shown over the past week that once again they understand the importance of supporting our children and trying to rid our society of the scourge of poverty and inequality. I ask the Minister to please read the report, and to implement it.