Government's slow COVID-19 response worsened health inequalities, warns BMA

Men from ethnic minority backgrounds were up to four times more likely to die from COVID-19 in the pandemic's first wave because of health inequalities exacerbated by NHS funding cuts, the BMA has said.

Sign outside BMA House
BMA House (Photo: Malcolm Case-Green)

The final instalment of a BMA review that will be submitted to the public inquiry on the pandemic also said that disabled people across the UK were more likely to die of COVID-19 than non-disabled people, and also to experience worse mental health.

The BMA said the UK entered the pandemic ‘on the back foot’ because of underfunding of public health and an absence of cross-government accountability exacerbating health inequalities.

BMA chair Professor Philip Banfield blamed the tardiness of the government’s response to COVID-19 for worsening health inequalities.

COVID-19 inequalities

‘The extent to which the UK government failed to respond to COVID-19 quickly enough and seek to address existing health inequalities made the pandemic worse for thousands of people, and makes for shocking reading in these reports,’ he said.

Employment was a key influence on people’s pandemic experiences, with those furloughed, self-employed, on zero-hours contracts or working in sectors hit hard by the pandemic such as hospitality facing financial losses and employment insecurity, the BMA review report found. Young people, ethnic minorities and women were disproportionately affected in this respect, it said.

Professor Banfield added: ‘It’s undeniable that decades of underfunding and under-resourcing meant that our public health systems were not properly equipped to handle a pandemic, and a chronic reluctance to address worsening health inequalities led to a gross imbalance of suffering across the nation.

'The consequences of these mistakes will be felt for years to come, and the UK government, as well as being ashamed, must be held accountable.’

Increased risk

The BMA review found that 'the risk of death was 3.7 times greater for Black African men than for their White British counterparts during the first wave and during the second wave Bangladeshi men were nearly five times more likely to die than White British men'.

Black African women, meanwhile, faced a 2.61 times higher risk than their White British counterparts in the first wave, while Bangladeshi women faced a more than four times higher risk than their White British counterparts in the second wave.

The BMA review called for improved funding for public health and for meaningful action to tackle health inequalities exposed during the pandemic.

GPonline reported earlier this month on comments from Professor Sir Michael Marmot that the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people in the most deprived communities in the UK was 'utterly predictable' after a decade of rising inequality.

A government spokesperson said: 'The COVID-19 inquiry has been set up to examine the UK's response to the pandemic and the government will meet its obligations to the inquiry in full.

'Our world-leading COVID-19 vaccination programme has saved countless lives and continues to do so. NHS staff have been working incredibly hard to bust the COVID-19 backlogs and we are starting to see results - our groundbreaking community diagnostic centres have delivered over 1.1m additional checks since July 2021, and the number of people waiting more than two years for treatment has dropped by more than 80% since February.'

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