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Racism in the NHS is rampant: nurses demand action

We have spoken to hundreds of ethnic minority background participants working in frontline health and social care roles with shocking stories of racism at work

The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report last year concluded that institutional and structural racism is no longer an issue for Britain and that there is an improving picture of opportunity for ethnic minorities. This has not been the case from the findings of our study, where hundreds of ethnic minority background participants working in frontline health and social care roles shared shocking stories of racism at work. Racism impacts ethnic minority and migrant staff working in NHS at all levels. We aimed to explore and understand the stories and experiences of Black and Brown health care staff during the pandemic and previously in their working lives as part of a Nursing Narratives research project.

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We conducted a questionnaire survey and qualitative interviews with Black and Brown nurses, midwives and other healthcare staff. Three hundred eight respondents completed an online survey, and 45 people participated in the narrative interviews. Interviewees were contacted through meetings organised with several ethnic minority health and social care professional networks and the survey.

Our findings report that racism is prevalent in the health and social care sector and is usually unreported. In the case of reporting to authorities, 77.3% of respondents who complained about racism said they were not treated fairly. Incidents of racism were not individual and isolated; it was a culture that permeated daily practice.

All the study participants experienced racism in their working life; most worked during the pandemic and reported experiences of racism before and during it. Our survey findings revealed that 52.6% of the Black and Brown staff experienced unfair treatment in the pandemic concerning COVID-19 deployment, PPE or risk assessment provision. Similarly, 59% had experienced racism during their working lives, making it difficult to do their job; thus, 36% had left a job. Most participants reported that exclusion and neglect as a form of bullying were among the most widely recounted experiences that took a toll on their lives; for example, 53% said racism had impacted their mental health.

Racism in the NHS is widespread, structured and ignored. Our research underscores that the endemic culture of racism is a fundamental factor that must be recognised and called out. Despite the legislation, there has been much talk about racism but not much action to root it out. Our study participants demand it is time to act NOW! by changing power structures and narratives underlying racism. We argue that only implementing an active zero tolerance to racism policy with penalties for organisations that do not comply can change the status quo.

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