BAME campaigners urge UK government to tackle race inequalities after high Covid toll

Haroon Siddique

A Covid-19 race equality strategy must be launched across Whitehall in the wake of growing evidence of inequalities amid the pandemic, a coalition of BAME campaigners, peers, academics and religious leaders has said.

The disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people, who are more likely than the white British population to die from the disease, has highlighted longstanding inequalities in health, incomes, housing and employment.

Signatories to Wednesday’s call for action, who include the director of Operation Black Vote (OBV), Simon Woolley, and the mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, argue that the crisis must be a watershed moment to fix such inequalities.

In an open letter seen by the Guardian, they and others – including religious leaders and academics – say: “For many of us there has been much heartache and at times anger in watching this crisis unfold and seeing many brave lives cut short. Furthermore, we are acutely aware of perhaps an even greater impact, socially, educationally and economically, BAME communities could face as we confront an unprecedented economic downturn.

“Our demand is for a Covid-19 race equality strategy that will not only deal with the immediacy of saving lives, but also fundamentally rebuild many of our institutions that this disease has exposed as having huge racial disparities.”

Black people are more than four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than the white British population, according to analysis by the Office for National Statistics. People of Bangladeshi and Pakistani, Indian, and mixed ethnicities were also found to have raised mortality risk relative to white people.

A Public Health England (PHE) review into how different factors – including ethnicity, gender and obesity – can affect people’s health outcomes from coronavirus is due to be published this week. But the signatories to the demand for a race equality strategy say that a wider-ranging review is needed in order to “build something positive and long-lasting from this deadly Covid-19 crisis” amid fears of a deep recession.

Lord Woolley, who is chair of the government race disparity unit’s advisory group, said he had had conversations with No 10 about such a review being instigated across Whitehall.

“It gives us a unique opportunity to tackle those deep-seated inequalities, which existed even before Covid-19, that could get very much worse, without dramatic action, without radical action,” he said.

“Big examples of that would be the prospect of high levels of unemployment, which for young black kids could go to 50, 60, 70%. The inequality in health that we’ve already seen could get very much worse if those poverty predictions kick in. Educationally, unless there’s dramatic action, those kids that are already behind could fall so far behind that a generation of young kids could be failed.”

Woolley expects hundreds if not thousands of people to back the demand, which will be posted on the OBV website. Its signatories also include the writer Afua Hirsch, David Weaver, the president of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Dr Elizabeth Henry, the head of diversity for the Church of England, and Rabbi Danny Rich, the chief executive of Liberal Judaism.

Among the disparities they highlight are the existence of only seven NHS trust chief executives who are BAME. This is despite 21% of the NHS workforce being BAME and 44% of its medical staff.

The letter also says black people are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed and BAME people are 48% more likely to be on zero-hour contracts.

The open letter decries what it says are attempts by some to blame genes, culture and/or lifestyle for disparities and to accuse BAME people of victimhood for raising social and economic disadvantages, saying: “We will not be blamed.”

It adds: “When we follow those key areas in our society that Covid-19 has exposed for having profound inequalities, such as health, employment, housing, criminal justice and education, we strongly feel that these are the areas we need to drastically put right.

“If anything good is to come from this awful disease, it is that we track what’s been exposed and amplified as discriminatory and we fundamentally fix it. That starting point is a Covid-19 race equality strategy, and it is something that we believe will form part of a new social and race equality contract.”

No 10 has been approached for comment.