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Public Health England dilutes inquiry into disproportionate BAME Covid-19 deaths

22nd May 2020
Public Health England dilutes inquiry into disproportionate BAME Covid-19 deaths

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and Medical Director, Prof Stephen Powis both respond to questions from Editor of The Muslim News, Ahmed J Versi during the daily Covid-19 Digital Press Conference with NHS on May 3

(Credit: Pippa Fowles/No 10 Downing St)

Hamed Chapman

A Government inquiry into the disproportionate impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities in the UK is being rushed through this month after being watered down into just a general review of “factors impacting health outcomes from Covid-19.”

In a belated announcement on May 4, outline details of the review led by Public Health England (PHE) were briefly set out after the intervention by The Muslim News Editor, Ahmed J Versi, who questioned what were the terms of reference as well as the composition of the panel planning to carry it out.

“The review will help provide insight into emerging evidence to suggest Covid-19 may be having a disproportionate impact on different groups and examine the potential effects of other factors such as ethnicity, level of obesity or gender,” PHE said in a statement.

It also said that it would “match laboratory records of Covid-19 cases to existing health records to draw down accurate data such as ethnicity and describe the association with Covid-19 cases, alongside other factors such as sex, age and geographical location.”

The disproportionate effect of the deadly pandemic on BAME people in all walks of life, including medical and other front line staff, has caused widespread alarm with numerous calls and initiatives that have led to demands going as far as the need for a full independent public inquiry.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock, insisted that the review was part of the Government’s “continued effort to reduce health inequalities, we have commissioned Public Health England to consider various factors such as obesity, ethnicity, age, gender and geographical location.”

“It’s an extremely important and hugely complex task, but we owe it to the nation to find out how this virus may affect different groups in different ways, to protect lives and limit the spread of the disease,” Hancock was quoted saying in the belated announcement.

During Downing Street’s Daily Briefings on May 3, Versi also challenged Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, whether such a controversial character like Trevor Phillips was suitable to play a leading role in the review.

Versi quoted from Phillips that Covid-19 death rates from Bangladeshi and Pakistani Muslim communities were not significantly higher than the general population and claimed that this could be because of ritual washing [before prayers].

Versi added that reports published showed that rates of deaths were higher in these communities than in the general population. Despite saying he was not aware of this by former chair of Human Rights Commission, Gove insisted he was a “distinguished public servant.”

In response to The Muslim News Editor that Public Health England needs to look at structural issues of racism and discrimination which increase health risk in ethnic minorities, Gove agreed that the review should not only look at just potential biological aspects but “perhaps socio-economic structural factors which may lead to inequality and that inequality may have been a result of discrimination.

We need to look at all these things proportionately.” Responding to the same question by Versi, NHS England Medical Director, Professor Stephen Powis, also acknowledged the role of discrimination in health outcomes amongst BAME communities.

“It may be the case that amongst some minority population, there is a greater prevalence of co-morbidities, that may be a factor or there may also be the factor that inequality can contribute to public health outcomes and it may be that we need to take a step back and look more broadly at some of the inequalities that do exist in our society.”

Despite his apparent role has been on record in a series of interviews and tweets, Phillips has been extraordinarily airing his views that he seems to have already made up his mind that the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on BAME people has nothing to do with structural racism nor social-economic factors.

Phillips has already been suspended by the Labour Party pending an investigation into his alleged Islamophobia.Apart from leading an outcry against the involvement of Phillips in the PHE review, hundreds of doctors have joined other professional, academics and faith leaders among others in writing an open letter to Boris Johnson calling for the review to be broadened into a full independent public inquiry to “include a focus on the levels of exposure BAME staff are facing, and whether employers are fulfilling their duty of care.”

The letter also asks whether Government emergency planning fulfilled the Public Sector Equalities Duty by factoring in the needs of BAME communities. “By instigating such an inquiry, the Government will provide an opportunity for a range of stakeholders to submit evidence through a transparent process,” it says.

One of the signatories, Dr Martin Edobor, an NHS General Practitioner and Vice-Chair, Fabian Society, said that the focus was too narrow. “The scope of a PHE inquiry would not be sufficient in addressing and tackling the roots of the inequalities that are likely to be present,” he said in an article for the Health Service Journal directed at healthcare leaders.

More than 70 BAME British figures on May 10 called for an independent public inquiry into the disproportionate deaths from Covid-19 amongst Britons from minority backgrounds.

On race and health inequalities, the letter says: “Covid-19 is clearly now one of the biggest issues in post-war history, directing a spotlight on race and health inequalities.

By instigating such an inquiry, the government will provide an opportunity for a range of stakeholders to submit evidence through a transparent process. This would help to restore public confidence amongst the UK’s BAME community.

The broad coalition of signatories from across society includes industry experts and people in public life such as Phil Wang, Kwame Kwei-Armah, Saloum N’jie, Bonnie Greer OBE, Farooq Chaudhry OBE, Matt Henry MBE, Shaun Escoffery and Jermaine Jackman.

Faith leaders including Harun Khan, the Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Britain, and the Very Rev Rodgers Govender, Dean of Manchester Cathedral, have signed the letter.

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