An independent public inquiry must explore factors contributing to the disproportionate effect of covid-19 on BAME communities, writes Dr Martin Edobor

Covid-19 has affected us all across the UK and has had extremely tragic consequences. Within this, there has been a disproportionate effect of the virus on those from our BAME communities, both within the NHS and throughout the wider UK population.

An independent public inquiry is essential to understand the factors causing the overrepresentation of the BAME community within covid-19 deaths and is needed to formulate necessary policy recommendations; that cross organisational boundaries and tackle the roots of the existing inequalities.

Public Health England have taken on the task of leading an investigation into this matter, however, this will naturally take on a scientific and public health perspective, which has already been embroiled in some dispute. Moreover, the scope of a PHE inquiry would not be sufficient in addressing and tackling the roots of the inequalities that are likely to be present here as former Department of Health permanent secretary Una O’Brien has already argued.

NHS England and Improvement are also attempting to address the effect of covid-19 on BAME communities, with the creation of a Race and Health Observatory. However, review of NHSE/I’s reactive plans to date have again indicated a narrow scope and highlight that this taskforce lacks the necessary levers to ignite the type of change that is required.

NHSE/I plans

NHSE/I’s proposed plans also show a distinct lack of patient/public participation. The observatory describes itself as a mechanism that intends to pick up on the key nuances of policy and messages that may negatively affect the BAME community, both within the NHS and the wider public. Yet, the proposed plans neglect any discussion of how it intends to engage with the very BAME communities it seeks to help.

Whilst the observatory outlines how it seeks to engage BAME staff within the NHS, health inequalities affecting the BAME community are relevant to those outside of the NHS as much as those within. This shortcoming feeds into the wider problem of this observatory, in that the scale of the task it aims to address is too wide for the scope of the NHS.

A lack of clarity in how the observatory intends to evaluate its actions, contribute significantly to the shortcomings of the proposed body. Within the proposals that have been drafted so far, NHSE/I state that the observatory will be in place on a four-year basis in the first instance.

However, the measure of its success is a glaring omission which in turn leads to a lack of accountability and the increased likelihood of this body becoming dormant. The observatory needs to demonstrate outcomes and transparency in order to be assessed or at least be clear about how it intends to show progress.

Our points and the rising voices within this side of the argument, contributes to the necessity of an independent public inquiry. The PHE review (not inquiry!) and the NHS Observatory are welcome contributors to tackling this problem, however, these acts alone cannot conclusively cover the wide-ranging systemic and cultural factors at play.

Only in the event of an independent public inquiry, would there be a comprehensive exploration of all contributing factors to the disproportionate effect of covid-19 on BAME communities.