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Covid-19: Ethnic Minority Disparities

Volume 810: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 1 March.

“On Friday, I published my second quarterly report summarising the progress the Government have made in understanding and tackling Covid-19 disparities experienced by ethnic minority groups. In my first report of 22 October, I concluded that ethnicity in its own right did not appear to be a factor in the disproportionately higher infection and mortality rates among ethnic minority groups. Rather, the evidence showed that a range of socioeconomic and geographical factors were responsible. The evidence base continues to grow.

The early second-wave data shows very different outcomes for different ethnic groups. In the first wave, for instance, black African men were four and a half times more likely to die from Covid-19 than white British men of the same age, but in the early part of the second wave the risk of death was the same for both groups. The second wave has, however, had a much greater impact on some south Asian groups, driven primarily by differences in exposure and infection. This strengthens the argument that ethnic minorities should not be viewed as a single group in relation to Covid-19 and means that our response to the pandemic and to the disproportionate impact that it has had on certain groups will continue to be shaped by the latest evidence.

The other major development since my first report is the approval of three Covid-19 vaccines and the subsequent rollout of the vaccination programme, with more than 20 million of those most at risk vaccinated so far. Confidence in the vaccine among ethnic minority groups is key, and my latest report summarises our efforts over the last quarter to tackle misinformation and promote uptake.

The report also sets out the extensive measures taken across central and local government to tackle Covid-19 disparities, including the release in January of £23.75 million in funding to local authorities under the community champions scheme and a further £4.5 million in funding for four new research projects looking at the health, social, cultural and economic impacts of Covid-19 on ethnic minority groups.

To conclude, my report outlines a number of next steps with this work and I will update the Prime Minister on progress at the end of the next quarter.”

ONS statistics last week showed that the unemployment rate for ethnic minorities is 9.5%, compared with 4.5% for white people. A key example of a risk factor is socioeconomic deprivation. Research shows that black, Asian and ethnic minority people are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts. One in five people on such contracts is not eligible for statutory sick pay. What plans do the Government have to address precarious work for ethnic minorities specifically? Do the Government acknowledge that this is evidence that structural racism in the labour market and socioeconomic risk factors interact?

My Lords, we recognise that certain occupations have had an increased exposure to the virus. That is one of the risk factors for ethnic minority populations. That is why with transportation, for instance, we have issued two different sets of guidance, for private hire and for public service vehicles, and included those within the mass testing. In relation to the economic disadvantage, we are investing £30 billion in a plan for jobs to enable people who have been put out of work by the pandemic to get work.

My Lords, the increasing levels of Covid-19 are now impacting far more on the south Asian community, particularly the Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. What targeted actions involving public health and policies are being deployed to combat this? Will the Government now publish equality impact assessments on the pandemic responses, including vaccine uptake, given the clear structural social inequalities and institutional racism that have exacerbated the pandemic’s impact on the majority of ethnic minority communities?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct that the report published last Friday revealed that in the second wave of the pandemic sections of the south Asian population were disproportionately affected by the virus. We have funded community champions to get the message out across certain communities through local authorities. In relation to community centres and places of worship, we have now set up asymptomatic testing centres and vaccination centres to try to increase the take-up within those communities, as getting vaccinated is the best way to protect them from the virus.

My Lords, I commend the work and the actions undertaken by the Government to respond to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities. However, as we have heard, the data shows that socioeconomic factors are a major driver for disparities in infection rates. Ethnic minority communities are statistically more likely to be disadvantaged. Does the Minister agree that, as we emerge from the lockdown, we must not only ensure that we build on this evidence and develop appropriate responses but take steps to ensure that we reduce the level of socioeconomic disadvantage faced by sections of the minority communities as part of the levelling-up agenda?

My Lords, the pandemic has indeed revealed many inequalities, including health inequalities across certain communities. That is not linked only to race: we also believe that certain coastal communities will have been disproportionately affected by the virus. However, we are aiming many of our schemes at those populations within the ethnic minority community; for instance, with the apprenticeship schemes we have had specific promotion to ensure that black and minority ethnic people take up those opportunities where they disproportionately do not do so.

My Lords, are my noble friend the Minister and her department looking at post-Covid job creation, particularly among the low-skilled BAME communities? I reflect on my own home city of Leicester, where many jobs have been lost. If we are going to try to level up, as she has just said, we need to ensure that the right services and right interventions are in place. Will she consider looking at a pilot scheme to go into Leicester to do the levelling-up agenda on the skills matrix?

My Lords, being relatively local to Leicester in origin, I pay tribute to the people of Leicester, who I think have endured the longest period of restrictions of any part of the country. One of the few pieces of good news for the House over recent weeks has been the FE and skills White Paper and the focus on higher technical qualifications. We are focused on giving skills to people, particularly in low-income jobs, through the lifelong learning entitlement so that while earning they can train themselves up to get better-paid and better-quality work. I will take away the specific idea of a pilot to the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills.

What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to engage with the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, who are often left out of these discussions, to raise awareness of the positive vaccination process that is available?

My Lords, the right reverent Prelate is correct that this marginalised community is often left out. My noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, who is in the House, is leading a specific initiative out of MHCLG on this community. We now have data on the level of take-up of the vaccine in particular communities. The local directors of public health, who are the best people to know how many vaccines have been offered and how many have been taken up on the ground, should have the detailed information in the coming weeks in order to focus on that particular community in their locality.

My Lords, ethnic minority groups have suffered disproportionately when it comes to health inequalities, economic inequalities and wealth inequality. However, any recovery post Covid will have to be UK-wide, so will the Government undertake to look at best practice and gather data so that we can compare the figures, whether from Birmingham, Belfast, Edinburgh or Cardiff, and therefore learn and overcome the divisions that have been so much more highlighted in the last year?

My Lords, indeed, the department, among other departments, is regularly in touch with the devolved Administrations, because we want to share best practice on this. Obviously, DWP is a nationwide provision and there are more job coaches there, which we hope will enable those communities, particularly BME communities, to access work as quickly as possible if they have lost work now or lose work after furlough ends.

My Lords, several noble Lords have quite rightly highlighted deprivation, unemployment and poverty as causes of Covid spread and I will not say anything different, though ethnicity per se does not predispose to Covid. People of ethnic origin, particularly in south Asian communities, are six times more likely to have diabetes, a condition that does predispose people to more serious impacts of Covid. Ethnic communities are also more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation and multigenerational households and to be poor. It is really poverty that kills. Can the Minister say what wider economic and social policies, including education, income and housing, the Government will introduce to tackle the poverty gap that has got wider in the last 10 years of Conservative government?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the NHS has an obesity strategy and the pandemic has shone a light, helpfully, on how important that strategy is. I can comment only in relation to the role of education in this—we were on track and had seen an overall closing of the attainment gap over the last 10 years. We recognise that there has been a narrowing in the last couple of years, but we are focusing our catch-up recovery to ensure that children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up as quickly as possible.

My Lords, the report suggests that overrepresentation in certain generally low-paid occupations is a significant factor in the horrific death rate for people from Pakistani backgrounds. There is a lot that might be said about that with regard to structural racism, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, referred to, but in the pandemic context, does it not demonstrate that employers are not doing enough to protect workers, particularly essential workers? What more will the Government do to force employers to behave better to save lives?

My Lords, since 1974, I believe, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act has been in force in this country and, overwhelmingly, employers take their responsibilities in this regard very seriously. The NHS, as a key employer, had by the end of last year done a risk assessment of the overwhelming majority of its ethnic minority workforce. As I said, we are also including certain groups in the mass testing asymptomatic pilots to ensure that we reduce rates of transmission.