The Covid-19 public inquiry is facing calls to consider structural racism in every part of its inquiry after it emerged that almost all minority ethnic groups were more likely to die from the virus than white Britons.
Earlier this month, the lead lawyer for the government-commissioned inquiry said he did not plan to consider structural racism in the first module of the inquiry examining pandemic preparations. But bereaved families and racial equality organizations have told the inquiry’s chair, Heather Hallett, that the 11 modules of the sprawling inquiry must look at the phenomenon as a key issue.
The Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign also accused the inquiry of “running scared” over what it claims is its unwillingness to examine “why the death toll was significantly higher among the black and minority ethnic community.”
The death rate in the early phases of the pandemic was almost three times higher for Bangladeshi men than for white British men and twice as high for Pakistani women as for white British women, according to the Office for National Statistics.
But Hugo Keith KC, a lawyer for the inquiry, told a hearing on February 14 that the opening module on pandemic preparedness was already looking at “how protected characteristics were or were not adequately safeguarded”. He said the need to scrutinize the entire government would make finding signs of structural racism “an impossible task.” He urged Lady Hallett to reject calls to commission expert tests on structural racism.
“If Covid research is serious about understanding what went wrong during the pandemic and learning lessons to protect lives in the future, then understanding why the death toll was significantly higher among the black and minority community. communities and listening to mourners has to be a priority,” said Jean Adamson, spokesperson for the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign. She has signed a letter to Hallet with the Runnymede Trust, the National Windrush Organization and two dozen other organizations.
They told Hallett: “Until we dismantle the factors that allowed the pandemic to have a racialized impact, we cannot mitigate a similar outcome of any future response to the crisis.”
They said, for example, that government policies towards undocumented migrants, such as denying them recourse to public funds, the right to rent and get paid for the NHS had a “disproportionate impact on people of colour, exacerbated financial insecurity, employment precarious, insecure housing and barriers to medical care.
A spokesperson for the inquiry said that “the uneven impacts of the pandemic will be at the forefront of all investigations of the inquiry.”
“For the inquiry’s first investigation, into the UK’s pandemic preparedness and resilience, the inquiry has briefed two world-leading inequality experts, Professor Michael Marmot and Professor Clare Bambra,” they said. “The investigation, which is already underway, will look at the extent to which the government took into account the needs of minority groups and others when developing civil emergency plans.
“The investigation’s terms of reference require that it “consider any apparent disparities in the impact of the pandemic on different categories of people, including, but not limited to, those related to characteristics protected under the Equality Act 2010 and categories equality in Northern Ireland. Law of 1998.”
It is the latest in a series of disputes between organizations representing thousands of people killed by the virus and government-commissioned research before it begins testing in earnest later this spring.
A dispute is also brewing over the way a “listening exercise” has been commissioned to collect public stories about the pandemic rather than listen to more of what is formal evidence. There are also complaints that some groups of people have been denied lead entrant status. Hallett previously warned against allowing the already vast investigation to “draw on for decades,” citing the need to learn lessons before any potential new pandemic.