NHS England has advised hospital trusts to make “appropriate arrangements” to ensure black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) doctors and nurses are shielded as best as possible on the job.
The move follows the government setting up a Public Health England (PHE) inquiry into the higher proportion of BAME deaths among the over 100 NHS workers who have died from the deadly virus as well as the wider community.
“In advance of their [PHE] report and guidance, on a precautionary basis we recommend employers should risk assess staff at a potentially greater risk and make appropriate arrangements accordingly,” NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said.
In guidance issued to all trusts, NHS Employers notes that emerging UK and international data suggests that people from BAME backgrounds are being disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
While there are no specific guidelines on the kind of risk assessment to be carried out for the workforce, each trust is expected to put in place the most feasible measures such as redeploying of some staff to areas or services away from the frontline where they would have less chance of becoming infected. They may also be given priority for testing if they develop symptoms.
“Employers should ensure that line managers are supported to have thorough, sensitive and comprehensive conversations with their BAME staff,” notes the guidance.
“They should identify any existing underlying health conditions that may increase the risks for them in undertaking their frontline roles, in any capacity. Most importantly, the conversations should also, on an ongoing basis, consider the feelings of BAME colleagues, particularly with regard to their safety and their mental health,” it adds.
The reasons behind higher Covid-19 risk posed to the BAME workforce, which makes up 40 per cent of doctors and 20 per cent of nurses in the NHS, are still a matter for review. One hypothesis is that people from BAME communities have higher rates of underlying health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, and this may increase their vulnerability and risk.
The Research and Innovation Forum of the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) found in a survey soon after that medical and healthcare professionals from Indian and minority ethnic backgrounds fall into a higher risk category of contracting the novel coronavirus in the UK.
BAPIO has been among the many medical associations lobbying the government for steps to protect this vulnerable category of the NHS workforce.
“The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the immeasurable contribution of our multicultural NHS workforce, without whom our health service would literally not have the staff to look after our nation’s health,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the Council Chair of the British Medical Association (BMA), another body lobbying the government over the safety of health workers.
“We have a moral duty to protect them and to recognise the vital role played by BAME workers within our health service, which will continue well beyond this pandemic,” he said.