The publication of Public Health England’s report on the impact of Covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic Britons gave us further confirmation of what has become increasingly obvious. Throughout the epidemic, as the faces of black and Asian doctors, nurses and transport workers have regularly appeared on the pages of newspapers and on our television screens, it has been clear that a disproportionate death toll is being exacted among Britain’s ethnic minorities.
The PHE inquiry provides the statistics behind that impression: black and Asian ethnic groups, it found, were all significantly more likely to die with Covid-19 than those from a white British background. People from the Bangladeshi community face twice the risk of dying from Covid-19. One of the earliest tropes to be discarded during this crisis was the notion that the virus “did not discriminate”. In the wake of this report, it is now incumbent on the government to reflect and act on the evidence that it does – and to a large degree.
We still do not know all the reasons for the disparities uncovered by the report, and it comes with caveats. Strangely, the study failed to take into account occupation, comorbidities or obesity levels. Other research has shown that this significantly reduces the difference in risks and outcomes between ethnic groups. A number of complex and interlocking factors are in play here. But over the past three months, there is no doubt that we have collectively witnessed a graphic real-time illustration of the potentially lethal impact of social inequality. BAME Britons, who are more likely to be lower-paid, live in poorer accommodation and be employed in public-facing jobs, are running the greatest risk during this crisis.
On Tuesday the health secretary, Matt Hancock, denied that publication of the report had been held back because of sensitivities surrounding the death of George Floyd in America. But the timing inescapably foregrounds wider issues that require a proper response from the government. Hours before Mr Hancock spoke to MPs, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, issued a damning statement in which she said the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minorities, in the US, the UK and elsewhere, shone a light on “alarming” levels of inequality that have been ignored for too long.
Ms Bachelet called for urgent steps to be taken to prioritise monitoring and testing, and to give targeted information to minority communities. The Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, has repeatedly called for similar action in Britain. New practical guidance is now urgently required, as the British Medical Association made clear in its response to the report.
Public health is not merely a scientific affair to be left to epidemiologists and virologists; it is undermined by the marginalisation, stress and poverty that often come with racial discrimination. Addressing this must be part of any post-pandemic social settlement, as the country draws appropriate lessons from a time that has exposed fault lines in a way which must not be forgotten. But more immediately, Mr Hancock must do more than tell the House of Commons, as he did on Tuesday, that “black lives matter”. He must act on those words.