UK government accused of ‘explaining away’ Covid race issues

Ministers have been slow to tackle systematic racism and racial inequality during the pandemic, and persist in trying to explain away disproportionality in death rates, the head of the Covid-19 public inquiry has been told in a leaked letter from black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders.

The government published its draft terms of reference for the inquiry in March and stated that the main topics would be the response to the pandemic and its impact in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It said the inquiry would also produce a factual narrative account of what happened.

However, the absence of a specific programme of work investigating how racial inequality and racism affected millions of Britons over the last two years has caused anger, and prompted half a dozen community leaders to raise their concerns directly with Heather Hallett, the chair of the inquiry.

In the letter to Lady Hallett, seen by the Guardian, the leaders say they are worried because the draft terms of reference do not contain any direct focus on the “significant inequalities” experienced by ethnic minorities “as a result of systematic racism throughout the pandemic”. This is especially alarming, they say, because “the effects of Covid-19 on race equality are likely to be long-term”.

The letter is signed by Jabeer Butt, the chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation; Charles Kwaku-Odoi, the chief officer of the Caribbean and African Health Network; and Circle Steele, the chief executive of the Wai Yin Society, among others.

A consultation was opened on the draft terms of reference, and contributions were sought from the public, bereaved families, professional bodies and support groups. Hallett is now assessing those views and considering whether to recommend any changes. She is expected to inform Boris Johnson of her views this month.

The letter urges Hallett “to consider not only the differing experiences of communities, but the experience of racism that increased the risks faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic communities during the pandemic as a specific programme of work within this inquiry.”

It says: “A range of community voices and robust academic evidence shows that black, Asian and minority ethnic people have experienced significant inequalities as a result of systemic racism throughout the pandemic both in general and across the main areas of focus for the inquiry. For instance, there is continued disproportionality in deaths and infections for black, Asian and minority ethnic people.”

The letter says there has been “clear disproportionality” in the deaths of black, Asian and minority ethnic healthcare staff. “For instance, 21% of all staff are black, Asian or minority ethnic but 63% of healthcare workers who died were black, Asian or minority ethnic.”

The leaders, who also include Zeenat Jeewa, the chief executive of the Asian People’s Disability Alliance, and Denis Onyango, the programmes director of the Africa Advocacy Foundation, say it is “important to note” that black, Asian and minority ethnic workers in other sectors were also “disproportionately affected by the pandemic”, including in business, housing and policing.

“Worryingly, the government response to growing evidence of racial inequality in the experience of infection and mortality was slow and then attempted to explain away evidence of disproportionality,” the letter adds.

“Unfortunately, the government’s desire to explain away racial inequality has persisted in the face of eminent public health experts, such as Sir Michael Marmot, highlighting that racism was one of the ‘causes of the causes’.”

Hallett is urged to set out a clear plan to secure testimony from people in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities and examine “what could be done to protect them from future pandemics”.

The Cabinet Office said in March that the inquiry would aim to understand the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic, as well as looking at any disparities in its impact.

However, the leaders urge Hallett to “demonstrate independence from the government by focusing on racism and racial inequality and not ‘disparities’ in understanding what needs to change to ensure that future public health emergencies do not once again disproportionately impact black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

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