Government must move faster to protect BAME doctors after COVID-19 deaths

Urgent action must be taken to protect frontline NHS staff who are black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent more deaths, doctors have warned.

Dr Chandra Kanneganti (Photo: JH Lancy)
Dr Chandra Kanneganti (Photo: JH Lancy)

Earlier this month the government launched an inquiry into why people who are BAME appear to be disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Reports have suggested that between 60% and 70% of frontline health and social care workers in England and Wales who have lost their lives in the pandemic have been from BAME communities, while six BAME GPs have now died.

Doctors have accused the government of a 'complete lack of action' to try to halt the disproportionate death rate and have argued extra measures must be taken to prevent more deaths.

BAME impact

The British International Doctors' Association (BIDA) has called for a special task force to be set up to collect data on COVID-19 deaths among frontline workers, to speed up efforts to investigate.

The group has also backed calls from the BMA for doctors to be 'selectively shielded' and has asked for 'more clarity' on the government's investigation.

Meanwhile, the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) has urged the government to deploy staff at 'significant risk' to non-COVID clinical areas. It too has said that the government has failed to tackle the issue with 'sufficient urgency' and has described 'palpable worry, upset and anger' among doctors.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also asked his party to launch a review into the impact of coronavirus on BAME communities, saying the country could not afford to investigate the issue after the crisis.

COVID-19

Of 2,249 patients admitted to 201 critical care units in England, 35.2% were from BAME communities, according to statistics from the Intensive Care National Audit & Research (ICNARC). The ethnic minority population of the UK was around 13% at the time of the last census in 2011.

Nuffield Trust researchers have said BAME deaths from COVID-19 account for around 18% of deaths in hospitals - well above the proportion of the population who are BAME. The researchers suggested that the higher rate of COVID-19 in cities, where people who are BAME make up a higher proportion of the population, may have contributed to the disproportionate death rate. However, they also pointed out that BAME populations tend to be younger on average.

Despite the government's promise to investigate disproportionate BAME deaths, doctors have argued that progress has been too slow. BIDA national chairman Dr Chandra Kanneganti told GPonline a special task force could help to speed up research. He said: 'Investigations and research take time, but that’s why we’ve returned to the health secretary with suggestions.

‘We are happy that the government has started this inquiry, but we think that there should be a task group to quickly finish work and find some kind of solution in the next three or four weeks. Otherwise it will be difficult and a lot of BAME doctors will be putting their lives at risk in the line of duty.'

Dr Kanneganti said it was crucial that information, such as the ethnicity of healthcare workers, their job role, what they were doing when they got the virus and whether they had enough PPE was collected.

Protecting staff

This month the BMA warned that older and retired black and minority ethnic (BAME) doctors should avoid working in infectious settings.

Deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries said: 'This is a hugely important and hugely complex subject. Our data has to be very, very good and even the recording of ethnicity is hugely complex.

'So, a death certificate will give the country of origin, but that may well not give anything to do with how the individual has lived their lives, the community they have lived in, and other sorts of exposure to disease they may have. There is a huge amount of work ongoing on this.

'Public Health England will be doing a very detailed review into this. The sort of things that will be looked at include other conditions we know that individuals from particular ethnic background suffer from. It is also about how people live their lives. We have very high representation in the NHS of those of BAME backgrounds. It may be that it is proportionate to the very high benefit that they provide to our health service in the sense that they are overrepresented.'

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