The inequality of COVID-19

By Janet Fyle, Policy Advisor coronavirus Clinical practice Evidence-based guidelines Maternity Services Equality and Diversity

Last month, the journalist Emily Maitlis gave a powerful statement about the current crisis on BBC Newsnight. "You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character," she said, "And the disease is not a great leveller, the consequences of which everyone - rich or poor - suffers the same."

As this pandemic has unfolded, the truth of these words has been borne out in communities across the UK. In our own health and social care community, we have seen the toll the virus has taken on colleagues and friends, particularly those from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. The Government and others have pledged to find out why those from BAME communities, and particularly those working in health and social care, seem to be bearing the brunt of the virus. While this is important, we need to do what we can to protect them now.

Last week (29 April 2020), the Chief Executive of the NHS in England, Sir Simon Stevens, published enhanced guidance on risk assessments for health and care staff. As we did for the guidance on PPE use, we are creating complementary advice for RCM members to 'wraparound' the NHS guidance. This highlights the legal aspects of risk assessment and the responsibilities of employers to carry them out.

While many things may be on hold during this pandemic, equality legislation is not one of them. The key parts of that legislation – to ensure that no group with protected characteristics experiences direct or indirect discrimination – still stand, even while service provision may be changing and may vary from Trust to Trust, region to region. In fact, these variations mean that we need to be even more vigilant against discrimination. Through our regional and national officers, we will ensure that our army of workplace representatives are well-supported to ensure that inequality, including that based on race, is not allowed to rear its head. An equality impact assessment (EqIA) must be carried out ahead of the introduction of any new COVID-19-related practices and policies in areas such as redeployment, rest breaks or overtime. The EqIA must look at whether there are any unintended consequences for some groups and whether the policy will be fully effective for all target groups.

While we may not yet know why, we do know that, of the healthcare workers who have died with COVID-19, over 60 per cent came from BAME backgrounds. These are figures we cannot and must not ignore. Protecting our colleagues is not only about making sure they have the right PPE. It’s about acknowledging the risks to health and wellbeing caused by discrimination and calling those out where we see them. That is what the RCM pledges to do, not just during this pandemic but always.