In the tumultuous story of the last year or so – which will be much more fun for people to study in the future than it is to live through now – the question of race and racial inequality has loomed almost as large as the pandemic.This isn’t mere coincidence, COVID-19 may not have been the trigger for the Black Lives Matter protests, but as the death toll in the UK started to mount, it was clear that a disproportionate number of those fatalities were happening in certain ethnic groups, notably among NHS workers.
New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer was quick off the blocks on this issue, commissioning a report from the respected anti-racism campaigner Baroness Lawrence. Her report published last autumn was scathing, claiming that COVID had thrived among minority ethnic groups as a direct result of structural racism.
Now the Government has presented its own audit of the UK’s racial inequalities, the Sewell Report, and has reached a very different conclusion, that there is no evidence of institutional racism In the UK, to predictably strong emotion.
Its chapter on health has proved particularly controversial, attracting criticism from Sir Michael Marmot, the UK’s leading authority on public health. It cites his report of 2010 on health inequalities to claim that social class is the key determinant of health inequalities, but not his two 2020 reports which have zeroed in on structural racism to further explain some of the disparities.
Some of Sewell’s recommendations make sense, but credibility in this area is literally a matter of life and death, when we look at the low uptake of COVID vaccines from certain ethnic groups. Trust in our health systems is needed to improve this situation, and this report falls some way short.