'We are priority choice to go to Covid wards': Why some BAME health workers feel more at risk of coronavirus

  • Watch the report by ITV Wales reporter Charanpreet Khaira

Health workers from black, asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have spoken about their experiences of racism in the Welsh NHS -  and have come forward to share what has happened to them.

It has raised allegations around structural racism in the Welsh NHS and claims that it could have contributed to the number of BAME health workers who died during the pandemic.

While specific figures for Welsh BAME healthcare workers who have died from coronavirus were not available, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate roughly one in four deaths amongst BAME people in Wales between early March and the end of July were Covid-related.

Previous research in England has also suggested that the number of BAME NHS staff who have died from Covid-19 is seven times higher than white workers.

For the first time, the union Unison asked its 785 BAME members in the Welsh NHS about their experience on the Covid frontline. 

131 replied. The response was stark.

When asked why they might be at increased risk of catching the virus, a common concern from BAME healthcare workers who responded to the survey was that they are "prioritised" for Covid-19 wards over their white colleagues.

One healthcare worker who wanted to speak to ITV News anonymously for fear of losing their job if their identity was revealed, said racism is "ingrained" and "systematic" within the Welsh NHS.

'Jazz', not her real name, said unless you are a consultant or a specialist "it's like you're not really worthy".

"People often don’t report any racist behaviour," Jazz said.

"When you do report something it’s trivialised - it's almost like you’re seen as the problem and often they will see you as a troublemaker."

Another said she knew she was not being properly protected from the virus at work.

'Maria', again not her real name, said: "We feel very unsafe because of the lack of PPE in the first outbreak.

"We are so scared. We sometimes feel like, do they really care about us? You know, going to the ward, taking care of the patients with only a mask and an apron."

Maria emphasised it is the fear of speaking out about their concerns that keeps her and her ethnic minority colleagues silent and has put them at increased risk during the pandemic. 

It is not just an issue at junior levels, some senior staff also recognise that there is a problem of structural racism within the NHS.

Richard Desir is Director of Nursing Primary Care, Community & Intermediate Care at Cardiff and Vale University Health Board. He has been working in the NHS for almost 35 years and said the problems he faced at the start of his career still persist.

"Those behaviours, those comments, those views that I heard when I first started nursing 34 years ago, still exist," he said.

"They may be quieter, they may not be as overt, but they exist, and they exist in society."

He added: "It is clear that structural racism exists, it’s clear there is bias within the recruitment process."

It's a view that was reflected in comments from those who responded to ITV News' survey.

Of the survey respondents who said they reported a racist incident, only around a third were satisfied with their employer's response. Credit: PA Images

On May 26, the Welsh Government launched a new risk assessment for people from BAME backgrounds working in health and social care.

The two-stage risk assessment is designed to reduce the risk of someone contracting coronavirus in the workplace. It was created by a Welsh Government advisory group, set up to look at why BAME communities are disproportionately impacted by the disease.

At the time, the First Minister Mark Drakeford said: "Against the backdrop of growing evidence that coronavirus is having a disproportionate impact on people from BAME backgrounds, the advisory group has developed this risk assessment tool, which I hope will help people understand their risk of infection and feel empowered to take action to minimise that risk."

However, there could still be an issue with the implementation of this tool.

One survey respondent said their assessment "was done very, very late" after "no one listened" to their initial request. In addition, 50 respondents said their employer had not gone through a formal risk assessment with them during the pandemic.

Tracy Myhill is the NHS Chief Executive's representative on the Wales Race Equality Forum. She told ITV Wales, "We are taking risk assessments very seriously - working with our communities giving them a voice enabling them to feel confident because as leaders, we need to acknowledge there is a challenge and that is important to accept. We can't make any assumptions because we really need to understand the personal experiences".

  • The survey was commissioned by ITV Wales News and distributed by Unison to their BAME members working within Welsh healthcare. 17% of those they contacted responded.