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PHE: ‘Deep concerns’ about COVID-19 support for BAME healthcare staff

A Public Health England (PHE) report this week highlighted concerns over treatment of BAME frontline staff and their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Risk assessments are one of seven recommendations detailed in a report on the impact of COVID-19 on  black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, published by PHE  this week (June 16).

Elsy Gomez Campos, president of the UK Black Pharmacists Association, told C+D earlier this week (June 17) that now that the Public Health England (PHE) recommendations have been published, “we need pharmacy employers and employees alike to be active in carrying out risk assessments to protect BAME staff”.

“Measurable changes” are also needed to “close the ethnicity gap” in the profession, a gap that has played “an important role in the disproportionately negative impact COVID-19 has had on BAME communities and healthcare staff”, she said.

BAME staff are more likely to work in low-paid positions and therefore to “find themselves in patient-facing roles and more often exposed to COVID-19”, she added.

Concerns over support and protection

The report follows the publication of a previous PHE report earlier this month (June 2) into the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on certain groups. It looked at a number of factors, including ethnicity, finding that death rates were higher among BAME groups and highest of all among those from black and Asian backgrounds.

The latest report identified “deep concerns” about the support BAME frontline staff working in health and care services, including pharmacies, have received during the pandemic. This included concerns that improvements to access to personal protective equipment (PPE) made since the start of the pandemic have not been “applied equally across ethnic groups”.

Other concerns expressed by stakeholders PHE consulted for the report – which ranged from pharmacy organisations and health and wellbeing board chairs to business and political leaders – included that BAME frontline workers were sometimes given PPE that was substandard or inadequate, “given the nature of their roles and the risk of exposure”.

The report said “numerous examples” were given of BAME staff in health and social care settings not being able to access appropriate PPE to protect themselves adequately in line with national guidance and of them “being afraid to speak up about this”.

Other stakeholders interviewed for the report said they had personally experienced or received reports from colleagues about racism, bullying and harassment at work. This meant they were more reluctant to speak up about issues such as PPE shortages, it said.

The report also noted: “requests for risk assessments or additional PPE by BAME workers are more likely to be refused, or whether those requests are less likely to be made because of fear of adverse treatment”.

Report recommendations

The report recommendations, which are not limited to health and social care settings, include that “culturally competent” risk assessments should be developed to reduce the risks of staff being exposed to or catching COVID-19.

The report said risk assessments should be created for use in a variety of occupational settings but were especially important for key workers working with large sections of the general public, or those who are in contact with people infected with COVID-19.

It also recommended that improvements be made to BAME communities’ access, experiences and outcomes of NHS, local government and care services. This should include good representation of BAME groups among staff at all levels, and sustained workforce development and employment practices, it said.

Other recommendations included:

  • Making ethnicity data collection and recording mandatory “as part of routine NHS and social care data collection systems”, including at death certification
  • Supporting further research – with the participation of BAME communities – to understand the increased risks to COVID-19 and develop programmes to improve health outcomes
  • Funding and delivering “culturally competent COVID-19 education and prevention campaigns” to rebuild trust and help communities access services such as contact testing and tracing
  • Developing health promotion and disease prevention programmes with a focus on reaching BAME communities
  • Ensuring COVID-19 recovery strategies reduce inequalities and create long-term change

The report concluded that the unequal impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities may be explained by a number of factors, including racism, discrimination and stigma, occupational risk, social and economic inequalities and inequalities in the prevalence of conditions that increase the severity of the disease, such as diabetes, obesity and asthma.

‘Disproportionate impact’

Ms Gomez Campos agreed that “there is a problem in recruitment of BAME leaders”, adding that there are “many overqualified BAME working in junior positions because they cannot break the glass ceiling”.

Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) England chair Professor Claire Anderson said the RPS “welcomes” the publication of the second PHE report but that “the government now needs to turn recommendations into actions and urgently address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities”.

“The report rightly recognises the need to protect BAME staff working in health and care. We have already written to the equalities minister, urging the government to engage across the health professions so everyone on the frontline has the support they need”, she said.

“It also highlights the importance of increasing diverse leadership at all levels in the health and care system. We know that the pharmacy profession is no exception and we’ll be talking about this more in our inclusion and diversity strategy due to be published next week,” she added.

The RPS is now running a survey with the UK Black Pharmacists Association, to find out if organisations have started to implement risk assessments and make changes to working environments so pharmacy teams can work safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMp) CEO Leyla Hannbeck told C+D earlier this week (June 17) that it has been “heartbreaking to hear about the colleagues from BAME background who have lost their lives due to COVID-19”. Community pharmacies have “continued leaving their doors open during the COVID-19 period, caring for patients despite the risks” and AIMp continues to “highlighting the fact that pharmacy teams are at the forefront of healthcare provision and should be high on the list for decision makers [when it comes to] to receiving appropriate protection”, she said. 

Racism in pharmacies survey: Share your experiences with C+D

C+D has launched a survey to ask pharmacy teams about their experience of racism in the workplace. To make your voice heard on racism in pharmacies, take the short survey, which launched yesterday (June 18) and will remain open for two weeks.

What do you make of the findings in the PHE report?

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