The Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme last summer likely helped trigger a rise in Covid-19 related deaths among Bangladeshi and Pakistani populations, a biomedical scientist has argued.
Professor Parvez Haris, of De Montfort University Leicester, said the initiative designed to kick-start the hospitality industry hit by the first lockdown created the “ideal environment” for exposure to the disease in the communities with the highest percentage working in the sector.
He expressed concern that the lifting of restrictions in England from Monday could see these ethnic groups hit again without further protections for small businesses, and warned that the Islamic celebration of Eid starting next week could be a “super spreader” event.
The state-backed Eat Out to Help Out programme offered customers a 50% discount, up to £10, on meals and soft drinks on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout August.
Professor Haris, who is due to present the findings of his data analysis at the International Festival of Public Health in Manchester on Thursday, said: “The Eat Out to Help Out scheme turned out to be an opportunity for businesses and their staff to make money they desperately needed and provided enjoyment for hundreds of thousands of customers, but it created the ideal environment for exposure to Covid-19, and the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities bore the brunt of this.”
According to Office for National Statistics figures released in May, people of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic backgrounds in England had higher mortality rates during the pandemic’s second wave of Covid-19 than the first, while other ethnic groups saw a drop in the relative risk compared with white Britons.
For Bangladeshi males, mortality rates rose from being 3.0 times greater than white British males in the first wave (up to September 11) to 5.0 in the second wave (from September 12 onwards), while for Bangladeshi females rates rose from 1.9 times greater than white British females to 4.1 between waves.
Meanwhile, although people from black African and Caribbean ethnic groups remained at higher risk than white Britons in the second wave, the difference was smaller compared with the first.
Prof Haris said 30% of the Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities worked in small businesses such as restaurants or fast food outlets, where ventilation could be “very poor”.
“They’ve not really been designed to tackle virus-laden water droplets coming out from people’s mouths, these small places, the kitchens are tight and narrow,” he said.
“I’ve seen people working in kitchens here in Leicester – six, seven, eight people working in a very small kitchen. People are almost falling over one another during busy times… they’re not properly self-distancing… they’re trying to cope with a huge flow of customers.”
He said people working in hot environments were also not wearing masks properly, and workers could be returning home to multi-generational households allowing the virus to “penetrate” through the community.
Prof Haris also highlighted the significance of underlying health conditions, with the Bangladeshi population having “the highest incidence of diabetes in the UK”.
The Bangladeshi and Pakistani population also had the highest percentage of people – 17.8% – working in the transport and communication sector, such as taxi or mini-cab drivers, Prof Haris will tell the Manchester conference.
He said overall this “created an ideal environment for the virus to reach homes, reach communities and lead to increase in deaths”.
By contrast, Prof Haris said the decrease in mortality among black African and African Caribbean communities between waves could be explained by a higher percentage – 43.6% – working in public administration, education and health where employers had resources to conduct risk assessments, apply safety measures and allow working from home.
Prof Haris explained: “It is not rocket science. Covid-19 is an occupational disease, that became clearly evident in the UK through the differences in mortality rates among ethnic groups in the second wave, with dramatic increases in groups working mainly in the hospitality sector during the Eat out to Help Out scheme.”
Looking ahead he said data needed to be used in a “targeted manner” to identify the main sources of Covid-19 exposure and steps taken to prevent transmission within communities.
He argued that grants should be made available to small businesses to improve ventilation, such as in restaurant kitchens.
Prof Haris concluded: “Ultimately it is not about race, ethnicity or class, it is about saving human lives and data should be used to identify who is at risk, and why, and how things can be changed for the better.”