John Lister

Anger at continuing examples of brutal, racist treatment and deaths of black people in police custody has sparked a wave of huge demonstrations not just in the US in response to the killing of George Floyd, but around the world.

In Britain, too, tens of thousands of mainly younger people, black and white, have joined street protests in towns and cities.

Some of these – like the VE Day street parties celebrated by the BBC and right wing press, or the large crowds that have surged to seaside resorts and beauty spots, especially since the Cummings scandal – have ignored or unwittingly breached social distancing rules. One famously tore down the statue of notorious slave trader Edward Colston, and dropped it into the dock from where his trade had operated and caused such suffering.

It’s ironic to see that the few scuffles that occurred and the rough treatment of an offensive statue have triggered more concern from ministers than the injustice and discrimination that triggered the events.

Windrush

Empty words of concern from government politicians now can’t conceal the deep-seated racism that persists in the continued injustice of the deliberate, institutional, Home Office-led discrimination against the Windrush generation.

Commonwealth and other BAME migrants were essential in the building of the NHS from 1948, with so many people from so many countries coming here to become nurses, doctors, professionals and support staff to deliver the service we all now see as so vital.

The question is surely why opposing racism is even a debate. Why should a minister like Priti Patel, who has herself suffered racial abuse, now be so blind to the discriminatory impact of policies like the now notorious “Hostile Environment” policy brought forward by Theresa May to deter and drive out migrants, and the charges for migrants to access NHS treatment which were first introduced as part of that policy (and which ministers are still committed to increase, even after they were forced to scrap the “immigration health surcharge” for NHS staff).

Last week Medact together with Migrants Organise and the New Economics Foundation published a new study of the impact of these charges as part of the Patients Not Passports campaign. It shows that even during the coronavirus pandemic migrants are deterred from coming forward for healthcare by the government’s continuing Hostile Environment.

Passports required

Despite the coronavirus ‘exemption’ from charging and immigration checks people are still being asked to show their passports for coronavirus treatment, and migrants are still too fearful to seek treatment.

Doctors of the World has revealed that people who are not on the right credit database (including many of the most vulnerable migrants) may find they are refused even a test for Covid-19.

Further evidence of the government’s lack of concern to address inequalities and discrimination can be seen in the failure last week of a Public Health England report on disparities in the risk and outcomes of covid-19 to include the views and recommendations of more than 1,000 groups and individuals who responded – or to make any recommendations for further action, despite this being in its terms of reference.

It estimated that 89% of covid-19 infections among healthcare workers may have been caught in hospital, and found that people of BAME background had a higher risk of dying from coronavirus – although none of the first 119 NHS staff deaths from covid-19 worked in ICU.

Poorer access

Surveys by the BMA and RCN have found that BAME doctors and nurses had much poorer access to appropriate and sufficient PPE than white colleagues, and BAME staff are disproportionately represented among lower-graded frontline staff likely to be at greater risk.

Ministers who want to claim to stand for “one nation” politics and want to show concern for racial injustice need to stop criticising protesters and start to take action the inequalities that stare us in the face. First stop doing harm.

Home Office and Equality ministers clearly need to read the recent damning reports from Michael Marmot and UN Rapporteur on poverty and inequality Philip Alston, and act on their recommendations: and Matt Hancock’s Department of Health and the NHS need to stop suppressing embarrassing criticism and start developing meaningful policies to address the inequalities that still weaken the NHS and put Black lives at risk.

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