John Biggs: The impact of Covid-19 on Tower Hamlets BAME residents must not be ignored

John Biggs: The impact of Covid-19 on Tower Hamlets BAME residents must not be ignored

As Mayor of Tower Hamlets, one of the most ethnically diverse places in the country, I am particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact the coronavirus seems to be having on my BAME residents. Queen Mary University, which is based in Tower Hamlets, has analysed data from local GPs. These show that, when adjusted for age, the rate of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 is 1.9 times higher in our South Asian population and 1.6 higher in our black population than in our white population. These aren’t just statistics. They represent family members, neighbours and colleagues. I have represented this community for over 30 years and it’s personally devastating to see this impact.

It is, of course, a national issue too. The figures show that 35 per cent of coronavirus patients in critical care beds are from ethnic minority backgrounds while the UK’s BAME population is just 14 per cent. The situation among NHS staff is even more severe – over 60 per cent of those who’ve died have been from BAME groups. Millions of BAME people across the country are living with the fear that they and their families are potentially more susceptible to the effects of Covid-19 than others.

The government’s response to this situation has been disappointing. BAME communities deserve far more than an inquiry that kicks the issue into the long grass. If the government expects people to go back to work, it must also accept that we need to protect those most at risk. Having been too slow to wake up to the threat facing care homes, it must not make the same mistake by waiting for report that won’t appear for months. This is, literally, a matter of life and death. 

It is true that BAME residents are more likely to be in the kind of frontline jobs, such as with the NHS, that exposes them to the virus. At the same time, pre-existing health inequalities resulting in underlying health conditions can mean the virus having a disproportionate impact on these groups. We are told that the virus does not discriminate, but looking into these figures highlights that it’s about race and it’s about class. That’s something we can’t be shy about addressing. It means looking into what lies behind the statistics.

We will be working in partnership with Queen Mary as more findings emerge, and will continue to press the government on its response to the pandemic. I’m pleased that the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has asked Baroness Doreen Lawrence to look into this matter in her role as race relations advisor.

London’s councils understand the challenges our communities face and have been stepping in accordingly. In Tower Hamlets, we’ve done a lot of work locally to ensure that communications reach residents whose first language is not English, for example by launching a Bengali language e-newsletter, producing advice videos in various languages and translating Public Heath England adverts and advice. I have urged government to do more around this – it can’t be right that some people are excluded at a time when information about the virus is key. 

We’ve also worked with our diverse voluntary and community sector, which can reach people government initiatives simply can’t. We were told government would do whatever is necessary to support local government. Since then, it has rowed back on that commitment. Such signals from government concern me and we need to ensure that it listens. The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on our BAME residents can’t be swept under the carpet. We need to make sure the next steps towards recovery are taken together and don’t leave anyone behind. 

John Biggs is Mayor of Tower Hamlets. Follow him on Twitter.

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