by Ravi Sharma, RPS Director for England
Many of us have lost friends and colleagues in the last couple of months owing to COVID-19. Six in 10 UK health workers killed by COVID-19 are from BAME communities.
It is a tragedy and must be tackled without delay.
BAME people are more likely to be key workers and in occupations where they are at high risk of exposure, many of them face-to-face with coronavirus every day. Their higher exposure, combined with long term health conditions, age, gender, continued issues with PPE and other health inequalities, further ramps up the risk.
In pharmacy, over 40% of our colleagues come from a BAME background. We’ve raised our concerns about BAME issues with the NHS, Department of Health and the Pharmacy Minister, Jo Churchill.
These efforts with other organisations have led to a national inquiry headed by Public Health England on understanding why healthcare workers from BAME backgrounds are being disproportionately affected by COVID19.
The question is - is it right for our employing organisations to wait for results of the inquiry or for the results of other studies, so that we know exactly what is causing these disproportionate deaths in BAME colleagues, before practical steps are taken to protect them? Do we ever really wait for a complete understanding of a disease before we start helping patients with at least symptomatic treatment? Of course not.
We know for a fact that BAME colleagues in the NHS are disproportionately being affected by COVID-19 infection and are losing their lives. Practical steps need to be taken now to mitigate the risk. We cannot simply sit idly by while we wait for a full understanding of the cause.
The guidance announced last week by the NHS is long overdue. What’s important now is we see it implemented so healthcare workers from BAME origin and all other high-risk workers are given an assessment and the necessary protections. All employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to protect their staff and ensure a safe working environment for them.
So what are the solutions?
- PPE is crucial. We must ensure adequate supplies of quality personal protection equipment are available to all staff across primary and secondary care
- Risk assessments must be mandatory for BAME staff, along with assessments for other high-risk groups such as pregnant women or those with underlying health conditions. The NHS and employers must make adjustments and re-shape their services if needed to enable people with a BAME background to continue to deliver high quality patient care.
- Involve BAME staff in decision-making on workforce and risk assessment, which means having more BAME colleagues in leadership positions locally, regionally and nationally. Without this, our perspective is bypassed.
- Build confidence with staff so that everyone on the team feels they can access a risk assessment, relevant services and policies free from the fear of less favourable treatment on the basis of their protected characteristics.
- Support the workforce with wellbeing services so BAME staff can address their physical and mental health needs. Have an open conversation that highlights co-morbidity issues and a commitment to support each other.
There’s lots more that still needs to be done and we understand the anxiety and frustration amongst BAME colleagues that this issue is not being dealt with at pace. Despite being in the middle of a pandemic where BAME colleagues have shown outstanding dedication at risk to their lives, we are still trying to get the basics right.