The Government will take action to tackle any structural inequalities that may be contributing to a higher level of Covid-19 deaths among people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background, the Health Secretary has said.
At the daily Downing Street briefing on Friday, Matt Hancock was asked if authorities were looking into why such groups are more at risk and what was being done to mitigate it.
It follows criticism of a Public Health England (PHE) report into disparities in Covid-19 risks published this week that it did not not go far enough in explaining the reasons why BAME people are more affected.
Figures have also suggested that BAME people were nearly 50% more likely than white people to be arrested in London under coronavirus laws.
On Friday evening, representatives from 13 organisations called on the Government to take urgent action to protect frontline BAME NHS workers.
Following a meeting to discuss the issue, they said the action should include robust risk assessments, sufficient provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and collecting data on occupational risk factors.
Such work should also be accompanied by efforts “to end systemic discrimination and structural inequalities in the NHS”, the groups said.
The PHE report found that after accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, people of Bangladeshi ethnicity have around twice the risk of death as people who are white British.
Those of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity have between a 10% and 50% higher risk of death when compared with white British people.
Analysis by the PA news agency has indicated that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff accounted for 60% of frontline health workers whose deaths have been linked to Covid-19.
Mr Hancock said on Friday that the Government does “care deeply” about the issue, adding that he was working with equalities minister Kemi Badenoch on what could be done following the report’s findings.
Mr Hancock suggested this included looking at “socio-economic factors”, such as “the bigger proportion of people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds working in occupations that are customer focused, for instance in transport and also in the NHS”.
He continued: “That may well be, and I would say is likely to be, an important factor in answering this question, that you rightly ask, which is why.
“And so the answer to that is to address the risks to those occupations and we’re working very hard to do that.
“And in fact the measure on face masks both on public transport and in hospitals will be steps in that journey.”
On Friday, it was announced that hospital visitors and outpatients will be required to wear face coverings and all hospital staff will be required to wear surgical masks in England from June 15.
Face coverings will be compulsory on public transport from the same date.
Commenting further on the PHE report, Mr Hancock said it did not take into account factors such as “comorbidities” or “occupation”.
He continued: “That’s the first starting point. But also questions around deprivation, quality of housing are important as well because we know that those living in lower quality housing find it more difficult to escape from a contagious virus like this.”
The Health Secretary added: “All the way along if we find things that we can do to help reduce inequalities then we’ll just get on and do them.”
Dr Chaand Nagpaul, British Medical Association (BMA) council chair, said: “The PHE review failed to provide any answers as to why Covid-19 is having such a catastrophic impact on BAME healthcare workers – and crucially offered no recommendations on how to protect them right now.”
He said the BMA and other organisations urged the Government to work with them to ensure any further review “has the confidence of BAME communities, doctors and healthcare workers and provides tangible solutions that prevent any more losing their lives while fighting the pandemic”.