Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

The NHS has been featuring very predominantly in the headlines of late, mainly regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. Medical professionals have been widely and rightly praised for their hard work, dedication and commitment through these incredibly difficult times. However, the national institution has also been hitting the headlines for much less positive reasons, namely, allegations of systemic discrimination on the NHS frontline.

Alongside reports of the high proportion of BAME healthcare workers who have died from Covid-19 are claims that BAME staff have been targeted to work on Covid wards – more so than their white colleagues.

Carol Cooper, Diversity Lead and Inclusion Champion of the Year at the Nursing Times Workforce Summit and Awards (2019), highlighted her concerns when faced with the mortality figures of healthcare professionals. She maintained that the Covid pandemic had exposed inequities within the system and that BME staff were being treated of a lesser value. (Nursing Times 17 April 2020).

This seems to have been corroborated in an ITV News survey in May https://www.itv.com/news/2020-05-13/discrimination-frontline-coronavirus-covid19-black-minority-ethnic-bame-deaths-nhs-racism/ when BAME healthcare workers in the NHS were asked why they thought more of their BAME colleagues were dying than their white counterparts. The survey revealed that 50% of those taking part felt that discriminatory behaviour played a role in the high death toll. Of those surveyed, 53% said they did not feel they could raise their concerns.

At a time when racial injustice has caused such demonstrative, widespread anger, there is clearly much to be done within the organisation to root out inequalities and prejudice and to provide a safe, healthy, and supportive workplace, free of any form of discrimination.

The NHS acknowledges that a diverse and inclusive workforce is central and wholly beneficial to the NHS – (“Improving through Inclusion, 2017”). But now, more than ever, there needs to be a renewed push, a renewed commitment to bringing about real and sustained culture change. Urgent action is necessary to stamp out discrimination and bias. Programmes and initiatives are necessary to make BAME staff, in particular, feel valued and respected.

If the NHS is to be an efficient and effective inclusive employer, it must truly understand the benefits of a diverse workplace and must truly value the diversity of its staff. It is vital that BAME staff are empowered, encouraged to speak up and can raise their concerns about risks and their safety at work – and importantly, that they are listened to.

In the words of Ms Cooper, this pandemic has shone “a light on the inequities which are part of the system in which we exist”.  Whilst many parts of the NHS have been actively striving to address diversity and inclusion, it would seem there are still unacceptable workplace cultures and associated behaviours that prevail and need to be addressed.   NHS leaders must act now.