• Somerset FT thought to be first trust to take such measure
  • Trust says it hopes it will make staff feel comfortable about disclosing underlying conditions
  • NHSE WRES lead praises decision

A hospital trust is treating all its black, Asian and minority ethnic staff as “vulnerable and at risk” of coronavirus and is prioritising them for fitting of masks.

People from BAME backgrounds appear to be disproportionately likely to develop severe coronavirus symptoms. Analysis published by HSJ last week revealed 63 per cent of health and social care staff known to have died from the virus were black or Asian, despite these groups only making up 16 per cent of the NHS workforce.

Somerset Foundation Trust has now included all its BAME staff in the vulnerable and at risk group, and is asking managers to have conversations with them and discuss concerns. It is thought to be the first NHS organisation to take this step.

In a letter to staff, the trust’s chief executive Peter Lewis said: “While we don’t yet have any conclusive research or national guidance, we feel that is the right approach to take.

“We also hope that you feel comfortable sharing any concerns you have about any underlying conditions so that these can be taken into consideration when planning your work.”

The letter also said all BAME colleagues and their families will be able to access testing within the first five days of developing any symptoms, and any who require an FFP3 mask — which offers greater protection than a normal surgical mask — will be supported to be fit-tested as soon as possible. Staff were also reassured covid-19-related sick leave would not affect their future progress or job role.

Mr Lewis said: “We recognise how worrying it is at the moment for our colleagues and we want to provide them with as much support as we can.

“Our BAME colleagues make a significant contribution to our trust and the care we provide to patients. We are grateful for their ongoing commitment.”

Less than 10 per cent of the trust’s workforce are from a BAME background, although this rises to nearly 20 per cent among medical and dental staff. None are thought to have died from covid-19.

Yvonne Coghill, director of NHS England’s workforce race equality standard unit, tweeted “many should follow the lead of Somerset FT,” describing the trust as “compassionate” with strong leadership.

The government has launched an inquiry into why people from BAME backgrounds appear to be disproportionately affected by covid-19.

Government guidance states any adult who is normally advised to get a flu jab each year is regarded as at increased risk of severe illness from coronavirus. This includes people with chronic asthma and other respiratory conditions; chronic heart, kidney or liver diseases; those with weakened immune systems; those with diabetes; those who are pregnant; and those who are seriously overweight.

People in these groups have been “strongly advised” to follow the guidance on social distancing, which includes avoiding contact with anyone displaying symptoms of covid-19 and working from home, where possible.